Did you know that thinking positively about aging can increase your life expectancy by 7.5 years? It’s true—which makes it a total shame that aging has such a negative stigma in our society.
Ageism, defined as stereotyping, prejudice, or discrimination against people based on age, has cast an unpleasant shadow over the process of growing older. Much of this has to do with the idea that as we age, we become less “strong” or “efficient” in different areas of our lives. Yet in reality, there are several aspects of our functioning that actually improve as we age, many of which lie in the center of our activity: the brain.
When you hear the phrase “aging brain,” you probably think of issues like slowed information processing and memory loss. These are two real parts of growing older that are important to know about and plan for. But equally important to consider are all the ways the brain actually becomes stronger as we age, ways few people are even aware of.
Several key areas of brain functioning don’t reach their peak until we hit middle age. These include our vocabulary, inductive reasoning skills, and ability to judge the trustworthiness of others. Older brains also tend to reach solutions more quickly because they focus on what can be done to resolve an issue, whereas younger brains focus on potential problems and negative consequences. This makes older individuals particularly efficient at problem-solving, both professionally and interpersonally. It also indicates a worldview that is less bogged down by fear and worry and more focused on positive, effective interactions.
As you can imagine, this focus on the positive has myriad emotional benefits. A study published in Psychology and Aging found that when shown pictures of both cheerful and distressing pictures, younger people were equally reactive to both, while older individuals responded much more strongly to the positive photos. This indicates that the way our amygdala (the part of the brain that processes emotions) functions alters as we age to focus on the pleasant parts of life. Older adults have also been observed as having more clarity about their feelings, making it easier for them to understand and regulate their emotional reactions, even when they’re unpleasant. Greater happiness and greater self-knowledge are things we all strive for, and it makes sense that over time we evolve to get them more easily.
You know all that cliche-sounding talk about age bringing wisdom? There’s actually some truth to it. The brain contains two hemispheres, each of which controls different functions. Younger people tend to think with only one hemisphere for any given task, but as we reach middle age, we begin activating both hemispheres. This allows us to utilize the full spectrum of our knowledge when responding to complicated tasks, leading us to make wiser conclusions. Instead of looking at problems through a narrow scope, we’re able to take in and asses many features at once.
Finally, while this isn’t necessarily a product of neurological change, aging tends to help us prioritize the people and pursuits we dedicate our thoughts and actions to. Our life experiences have taught us which challenges are worth facing and which end with us flat on our faces. Mistakes serve as the trial runs for choices we can opt out of later in life, and successes encourage us to repeat certain actions moving forward. Our ability to reason through trouble and find effective solutions is enhanced not only by changes in our brain’s structure, but also by our history.
These are only a handful of the brain-related benefits that come with aging, and they don’t begin to cover the physical, social, and lifestyle-based bonuses you may receive. What aspect of aging have you appreciated the most? Let us know!