It's a fact: Our aging brains are wiser

Older is wiser. I have facts in case you need to defend that statement in a conversation with a despondent age peer or a skeptical family member.

Let's begin with an article in a recent issue of the Smithsonian magazine. The publication was given to me by a beautiful, aging-well elder who continues to tutor me in Spanish on a weekly basis. Gracias, maestra. Ha sido maravilloso.

I'm excited about the lessons, but I'm not learning the Spanish language as quickly as I'd hoped. In fact, I find it more of a struggle (la dificultad) than I'd anticipated. But then, I know the aging brain takes longer to absorb new information.

I also know that once new information is fully learned, older brains retain it better than younger brains. Vive la difference!! (Yes, I recognize that's French; I told you this was all a little difficult for me.)

I may have mentioned this before — but it's still true. Learning a new language is undisputed as a way to keep your cognitive abilities intact as you grow older. Learning to play a musical instrument is a close second. I'm considering taking up the ukulele once the Spanish classes have ended.

Where was I? Oh yes, older is wiser. Scientists are finding that as people age, we may take longer to learn new things, but overall our aging brains "get sharper at a number of vitally important abilities" (www.smithsonian.com/brainevo).

Research shows that aging adults are "better at dealing with social conflicts" and "imagining and working through different points of view." As they age, older adults are more able to "think through multiple resolutions to a problem and suggest workable compromises." Social skills are vastly better developed.

Feelings of anger "decline steadily from our 20s through our 70s" and feelings of stress appear to nearly evaporate after about age 50. Well, "evaporate" is my word not the researchers — but I'm choosing to be optimista.

There is an increasing rush of studies to support the surprising and unexpected advantages of growing old. In a German study, published just this year, people of all ages were placed in financial win-lose situations, and researchers found 20-somethings agonized about their losses while the 60-somethings simply integrated a loss into their life experience and moved on. No overreactions, no "woe is me" dialogue. A Stanford University study by Dr. Laura Carstensen found aging adults are very positive overall and "their emotions bounce around less."

There's a book that probably illustrates all this better than I just have, "30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans." The author is Cornell University sociologist/gerontologist Dr. Karl Pillemer, who writes about the personal recollections of more than 1,000 elderly interviewees between ages 70 and 100. It's concrete and practical advice. And one of the biggest findings: The elders are likely to describe their last five or 10 years as "the happiest of our lives."

I say to you "… let's forget about those senior moments. Vamos olvidar los momentos de alto nivel! Si? Gracias.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, ext. 210.


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