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Silly Saturday Blog Post

Elders Mellow As They Age

category_bug_journal2.gif For as long as science has studied the human brain, experts believed intellectual power peaked at age 40. But in the past year or two, there has been a steady stream of new research showing that we not only maintain our cognitive skills as we get older, they actually improve.

Back in January we reported on studies done in California showing that

“Far from slowly powering down, the brain as it ages begins bringing new cognitive systems on line and cross-indexing existing ones in ways it never did before….you manage information and parse meanings that were entirely beyond you when you were younger.”
Time, 16 January 2006

Now comes additional proof, from Sydney University in Australia, to combat the belief that brain function declines with age.

“A brain imaging study in individuals 12 to 79 found that emotional stability continues to improve, even into the seventh decade.

“And older people were found to be less neurotic than teenagers…A total of 242 healthy men and women were assessed for the study using emotional well-being questionnaires.

“Neurotic traits were found to decrease with advancing age – with the 12 to 19 year age group being the most neurotic and the 50 to 79 year age group being the least neurotic.”

BBC News, 16 June 2006

The researchers say that these results indicate elders have better control over brain responses to negative emotions than young people, and they believe these new findings will help them develop treatments for age-related cognitive decline.

Two things are surprising about these recent studies. One is that they don’t receive wider publicity. Each bit of new research, so far, demolishes the myths and stereotypes about elders that have been believed too widely for too long. But if I didn’t have a deep personal interest in what it’s really like to get older and seek out such news stories, I’d never hear or read of them.

However, there is no doubt that if the research proved people lost 50 percent of their brain cells by age 50, it would be headline news and there would be Senate hearings on whether elders should be allowed to vote or hold office or even work at all.

Could this lack of attention be the result of an ageist media maybe? Huh? D’ya think?

The second surprise is that the findings seem to be a surprise to the researchers and reporters. I think elders have always known this stuff about ourselves. We’ve always continued to learn new things into old age. We’ve always known that we mellow iwth age, react with greater calm and control when things go wrong or make us angry.

It is a good that science is finding ways to prove what is otherwise common-sense knowledge, but wouldn’t it be a better thing and a more enlightening thing if the studies were reported with a lead-in such as this:

“Researchers at Sydney University confirmed today what our parents and grandparents have been showing and telling us all along – that they have become much more emotionally stable in their later years and they don’t spout off at the drop of hat when someone disagrees with them as they did when they were young. ‘I haven’t been in a bar fight since I was 45,” said John Doe.

“The reason, say the University scientists, is that the medial prefrontal area of the brain…”

The why is interesting to know and in a culture that values only “expert” observation, the studies will help negative and ageist attitudes to gradually change. But a whole lot of this stuff was obvious to anyone who just looked around now and again.


I found myself reading this post and nodding all the way through it.
Having never been exposed very much to that segment of our society over age 65 until I began doing home health nursing 19 years ago, THIS was one of the major things I encountered. The vitality, the knowledge, the brain power of these people I saw every day. I was astounded at their view points, their desire to keep learning, and how they contributed to the community as a whole. At that time, I was barely 40 years old and shamefully admit that I probably thought that after age 65 people in general declined. I quickly found out that was a myth.
It was refreshing and inspirational to me to see all the pre-conceived notions were very wrong. And since then...everything I see and hear only continues to support this.
So yes, the media is definitely slanted. But it's writing like yours that will hopefully change the myopic view of that media and I wholeheartedly agree that once we begin to "look around" we see how misinformed we may have initially been.

Older and wiser....
The studies are just catching up to prove what has been known all along.

Nice catch, cheers.

Cognitive & Neurotic… there is an attention getter huh?

You know, hardly an instance goes by whenever I have a close encounter with one of those younger human critters that I don’t get the impression that it is precisely that question which I perceive in their glances.

Your post left hardly crumbs to munch on so what is left to say will be brief. I am not sure I agree with the article in total - at least with regard to the ‘brain’ function aspect, if I understood it in its presented context. I think that we become mellow as we become elders for the simple reason that we are smarter than everyone else. :)

It seems to me that the underlying cause of ‘mellow-yellow’ is that old topic of “wisdom” that has been discussed here before. We have learned certain truths in ageing that have gotten us to where we are and those younger ones are still avoiding those truths or trying to change those truths. You know….the same thing we tried to do. But we eventually learned sooner or later, mostly later, that those truths were actually just that – so we became wiser. So when those truths come into question in our presence by the younger folks, we simply smile and have another glass of prune juice. We are mellowed out!

I literally hated school as a youngster and young man. But somewhere along the way, say around fifty, I found myself craving knowledge. Weirdest thing I have ever experienced in my life. And to this day, if I am learning, I am in hog-heaven, what ever the hell that is! Sometimes I even think to myself, why am I sitting here studying this, I am about to be dead! :)

Gee, Ronni, I think that you should devote your blog to phrasing each mass-media report on study-on-aging findings, as they should be phrased. No other comment would be necessary. We could just read you as our news source--and it would be wonderful.

Unlike Terri, I had grand-mothers, grand-aunts, great-grandparents, and a great-great-grandmother around as I grew up. There was no doubt in my mind that they were gods (inclusive of both sexes) when compared to me, the snot-nosed kid! When any one of them spoke, I listened--and acted upon it as required!

As I was growing up it never occurred to me to view most aging people in any other light than being emotionally stable, more intelligent than me, and, most importantly, interested in continued learning.

Now, that's not to say we didn't have different viewpoints on some topics, but we debated them, sometimes vociferously, generally ending with "we agree to disagree."

My mother was the primary force in stiumulating my mind, as she also began to cope with becoming legally blind in mid-life, was faced with many other challenges as well.

My brother, ten years older, delighted (and still does) in deliberately taking the opposite position on any issue, whether or not he actually believes it, just to "rile" me as he could do when I was young. I must say he has had the capacity to do so long after I ceased to be entrapped emotionally by others. Think that's partially why I love him so!

My professional work for the past twenty years or so, has, and continues to put me in regular contact with adults of all ages, but the majority are in the 40 years and up (over 100) age range.

Among other areas, I focus specifically on communication and cognitive functions. I can confirm the above scientific findings on the basis of anecdotal experiences alone, that I have encountered first hand.

For many working in these professional areas the results of these scientific studies come as no surprise. The challenge is, and always has been, to educate other professionals and ordinary people to the facts.

I continue to stress how crucial the language is, that is used to describe aging and the aging process; how important it is that writers in the media or elsewhere use the appropriate respectful accurate terms (words) in how they characterize us; that they remember, we are all always aging from the time we're born; that if you're not in the "aged" group now, YOU WILL BE!

Thank you, Ronni, for continuing to bring to our attention the scientific studies to support what we know to be true about aging. For those who require a scientific basis to overcome their false beliefs and prejudices about what aging is really like, I find myself wondering what more I can do to insure the media and writers accurately and effectively report this information.

I agree that so much of the media is ageist.

I cannot give any concrete examples off hand but it is evident as I read two daily newspapers and watch the news that elders are thought to be, as they used to say about children" "elders" should be seen but not heard."

An interesting comment on a web site from Berkley Education struck me as pertinent to this discussion which could apply to main stream media as well as some doctors.

"Often doctors do not seek input from children because they fear children are too immature to bear the responsibility of decisions about treatment.

Dr. Yvonne Brouard, a pediatrician at Alameda Pediatrics, said, "Like the elderly, [children] are often labeled as incompetent and uninformed"

In my opinion competence varies from individual to individual not necessarily due to age but also to the many other factors that contribute to encourage an individuals inquisitiveness and drive in acquiring knowledge and retaining information.

Of course we have to exclude the debiliting illnesses like Alzheimer's in considering competence in elders. I hope and pray that more reasearch will soon be forthcoming to help alleviate this terrible disease in our lifetimes.

‘I haven’t been in a bar fight since I was 45,” said John Doe.

John Doe, neither have I. :)

Terri, the phrase "older & wiser" is exactly what came to mind for me, too.

Of course, the media is ageist: it's filled with young "whippersnappers" eager to "make a name" and nudge out anyone over 40.

I see those neurotic traits, obsessions, and fears in the young college adults I teach. I remember how I and my pals seemed to get our guts twisted up over just about everything -- romance, grades, what someone said to us, wanting something we couldn't have . . .

I also notice that my adult learners are more dedicated and appreciate the educational experience much more. Had a conversation just yesterday with a returning student in his 30 s who said he would never have dreamed he could be pre-med just 10 years ago -- he never could have concentrated enough until he had a goal he really wanted.

BTW, had a dream about you last night, Ronni. I dreamed I woke up one morning and decided I was going to spend the day driving to Maine to meet you (more like 4 days from S. Florida!), and you were entertaining a bunch of other women in your apartment . . .

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