The Opportunities of Being Elderly

In his book The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain, Gene Cohen identified many areas where the brain of elderly people has an advantage over the brains of younger people.

For example, Cohen shows that as we age our brains become more flexible. (This happens because of a greater connection between the left and right hemispheres of our brains.) One of the results of this is that the older we become the easier it is to resolve apparent contradictions in opposing and seemingly incompatible views. Elderly people also find it easier to grasp the ‘big picture’, seeing the forest instead of just the trees.

These and other positive aspects of aging do not realize themselves until mid-life, and become even more pronounced in a person’s 60’s and 70’s.

Creativity also has the potential to increase with age, including the type of ‘pragmatic creativity’ that is only possible in a well-seasoned mind.

Older adults are also able to achieve “a greater acceptance of life’s realities, a greater sense of self, and a long-term perspective that makes it easier to accept the inevitable slings and arrows of daily life.”

After doing interviews with more than 3,000 older adults, Gene Cohen found that older people have a greater capacity for what he calls ‘developmental intelligence’. Other researchers have referred to this as ‘crystallized intelligence.’ Whatever term we use, this is simply “The degree to which a person has manifested his or her unique neurological, emotional, intellectual, and psychological capacities.” Cohen continues:


It is also the process by which these elements become optimally integrated in the mature brain. More specifically, developmental intelligence reflects the maturing synergy of cognition, emotional intelligence, judgment, social skills, life experience, and consciousness. We are all developmentally intelligent to one degree or another, and, as with all intelligence, we can actively promote its growth. As we mature, developmental intelligence is expressed in deepening wisdom, judgment, perspective, and vision.

It doesn’t stop there. Research has shown that elderly people can be more forgiving. Also, research published in Psychology Today has shown that over-60s can be happier than younger people. Moreover, studies by psychologists Mara Mather, Turhan Canli and others show that aging often corresponds to people paying less attention to negative emotional stimuli. In an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, David Brooks summarized some of this exciting new research:

Over the past few years, researchers have found that the brain is capable of creating new connections and even new neurons all through life. While some mental processes — like working memory and the ability to quickly solve math problems — clearly deteriorate, others do not. Older people retain their ability to remember emotionally nuanced events. They are able to integrate memories from their left and right hemispheres. Their brains reorganize to help compensate for the effects of aging.

Are there aspects of our cognitive functioning that decline with age? Absolutely. But this is not the whole story since there are also many aspects of brain-functioning that can improve as we get older, as I have tried to show in this post. Moreover, even in those areas where our brain typically declines with years, such decline is by no means necessary or inevitable if we are proactive in keeping our brains and bodies sharp.

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