Old age does not only come with infirmity
I recently spoke to a person over 50 about all kinds of things she had learned, was learning, and wanted to continue learning. She said she felt that life actually gave her more options now than when she was young. She concluded: Old age doesn't just come with infirmity. That sentence stuck in my head. Read below why I think that sentence holds a lot of truth.
Old age does come with infirmity
As we get older, our body changes. Our muscles gradually become weaker, our skin becomes thinner, and our bones become more brittle. Older people may also have more health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and arthritis. These physical changes can cause older people to be less mobile and have less energy than they did when they were younger.
In addition, we may experience a decline in things such as our eyesight, hearing, memory, and speed of thinking. The fact that these things happen means that, in certain respects, the elderly can have a more difficult time than young people on average. But other factors can make life a little easier for the elderly.
Some things get easier
One of the reasons why old age does not only bring infirmities has to do with the fact that life is becoming easier for older people, in some ways. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Older people often have more financial security and are no longer dependent on a salary. They often have saved for retirement or receive a pension benefit, which means they experience less financial stress than younger people.
- Older people often have more free time. Children have left home, are retired, and have fewer obligations than younger people, who must juggle careers, families, and other responsibilities.
- Older people have more life experience and have often learned to deal better with stressful situations and setbacks in life. They have more resilience and can put things into perspective better.
- Older people need to worry less about their appearance and image. They often have more self-acceptance and are less concerned with what others think of them.
- Older people often have more social connections and relationships built up. They have had more time to make friends and strengthen family ties. This can provide a sense of belonging and support in times of need.
Older people feel better on average than young people
Some things make old age more difficult; it seems others make old age easier. But what is the balance? How are the elderly in general? The short answer seems to be: pretty good.
Laura Carstensen is a psychologist who has done extensive research on the well-being of older adults. Her research has challenged the stereotype of aging as a time of inevitable decline and instead emphasizes the positive aspects of aging. She shows that older adults experience greater emotional stability, more positive emotions, and fewer negative emotions than younger adults. She has also found that older adults are more motivated to set emotionally meaningful goals and are more likely to focus on positive aspects of their life experiences.
Older people can get better at some things
It is true that old age brings with it certain forms of deterioration, but that is not the whole story. In some things, older people can continue to get better and are on average better than young people. Here are some examples:
- Better emotion regulation: Older people are often better able to regulate their emotions than younger people. This is because the brains of older people are better able to process and regulate emotional stimuli (see, for example, Brassen et al., 2012).
- Increased Wisdom: While it is not a given that older people become wiser, people can become wiser as they get older. Older people have more life experience, which gives them the opportunity to build more wisdom. They may have gained more knowledge and understanding of human relationships and may therefore learn to deal better with complex social situations.
- More empathy: Older people often have more empathy than younger people. This is because they have more life experience and are better able to empathize with the feelings of others (see, e.g., Beadle et al., 2015).
- Better mental health: Despite the physical challenges that aging can bring, older people often have better mental health than younger people. They have learned to deal with setbacks and often have a more positive outlook on life.
- Verbally Stronger: While it's true that thinking speed and memory tend to decline in the elderly, some cognitive abilities can continue to grow stronger into old age. An example of this is verbal abilities (read more).
We don't control it all ourselves
Of course, these things do not apply to all elderly people. There are individual differences. Some elderly people fare much better than others.
We can never fully control how we fare as we grow old. Coincidence plays a role; predisposition to certain diseases plays a role, and so on. But how we think and what we do play at least some part in how well we do as we get older.
What beliefs do we have about getting old?In this article, I raised the question of whether we can continue to make progress into old age. I pitched two concepts: the hill mindset and the lifelong progress mindset.
- The hill mindset is a way of thinking that the first half of our lives is the good part, where everything blossoms, while the second half is the lesser part, where we begin to wither.
- The lifelong progress mindset means that we envision our entire life as an ascending trajectory until just before we die. While some features decline as we age, other features get stronger, and we can still progress and grow, albeit more slowly.
So the question is, which mindset is more productive? And is it conceivable and desirable that people continue to grow until they die? My expectation is that a hill mindset is more likely to lead to passivity and decline than a lifelong progress mindset. This last mindset invites more to make something of it. And that is necessary because things will not go well for us by themselves.
What things can we do to increase the chances of aging well?Here are some things we can do to increase our chances of doing well as we age.
- Healthy eating: Eating a balanced diet rich in nutrients can help keep the body healthy and reduce the risk of various diseases. For example, switch to a plant-based diet. This reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, various types of cancer, and diabetes (see, for example, Barnard et al., 2021; Dybvik et al., 2022; Dinu et al., 2017).
- Physical exercise: this not only has positive effects on the physical health of the elderly, but also on their cognitive functioning (Rossi et al, 2020; Guo et al., 2020).
- Cognitive Stimulation: Seek cognitive challenge. Think of learning a new language, playing a musical instrument, or doing things that you find difficult, such as brain exercise puzzles. These kinds of things can contribute to the maintenance of cognitive functions later in life (see Gómez- Soria et al., 2023).
- Social interaction: Social interaction is important to the well-being of older adults. Older adults who have regular social contact experience fewer feelings of loneliness and habe a better quality of life (see e.g., Samtani et al., 2023).