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.