Although getting older does involve cognitive and physical declines, some things get better. And, some of the declines we might expect may be more fiction than fact. Three studies shed light on the realities of getting older.
One study by Amanda Shallcross and her colleagues showed that emotional well-being improves with age, particularly in terms of experiencing fewer negative moods and emotions. They studied 340 people ages 21 to 73 and found that older people lower anger and anxiety, but not less sadness. They also found that the older we get, the mellower we are. As we age, we are more accepting of things and, ultimately, less unhappy. This makes me think of Reinhold Niebuhr's serenity prayer:
O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
the courage to change what can be changed,
and the wisdom to know the one from the other.
Older people seem to have an increased capacity to live into that prayer. Zimmermann and Grebe’s study produced similar results with older people. They found that, unlike younger people, most older people are able to live with health problems and other challenges with a positive emotional detachment. Rather than trying to defy their age, they are able to rise above it with cool nonchalance--they seem to know there is more to life than the challenges they face. This capacity did not depend on wealth, education or gender--all seniors are able to be cool.
It terms of declining mental capacity, there are people who, unfortunately do suffer from real illness and affliction. But even among those who do not, people may perceive declines that simply are not real. Dayna Touron and her colleagues found that many older adults don’t trust their memories, and so don’t realize their full cognitive capacity. In other words, older people think they have poorer memories, but science indicates their memories remain strong. This misunderstanding could cause old people to use their brains less, and the fear of have a poor memory could also undermine their confidence and self-esteem. In turn, these experiences might cause older people to use their brains less, which might contribute to a more general mental decline as people age. Touron's research shows our brains are still vibrant and strong as we age--so go out there and use those big brains!
So, no matter how old you are, you are likely getting better!
~Matt and the entire Well-being At Work Team
Harm-Peer Zimmermann and Heinrich Grebe (2014). “Senior coolness”: Living well as an attitude in later life. Journal of Aging Studies. 28, 22-34.
Shallcross, A. , Ford, B. , Floerke, V. , & Mauss, I. (2013). Getting better with age: The relationship between age, acceptance, and negative affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 734-749.
Touron, D. (2015). Memory Avoidance by Older Adults: When "Old Dogs" Won't Perform Their "New Tricks" Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24 (3), 170-176.