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The myth of cranky oldsters

Coffee in hand, I sat down in front of my computer this morning hoping for some entertaining diversion. The sun was barely up, and I was not quite ready for the in-depth informational updates I often find on my screen.

The subject line on the first message grabbed me. "True or False: Old Folks are Crankier than Young Folks." Pause for a moment please. What's your intuitive response? If you're thinking. "Well yes, they probably are," that's exactly where I went — initially.

But that's wrong. An Australian study found that "old folks" are much more emotionally stable overall — not really cranky at all. In fact, this study concluded the absolute reverse to be true. "Age brings emotional equanimity."

It makes me feel strangely soothed to know my initial reaction was in error.

The Johns Hopkins University Health Alerts (www.johnshopkinshealthalerts.com) always provide engaging reading, and on this particular day the alert profiled a recent study in the "Journal of Neuroscience." It had assessed people of all ages using questionnaires about emotional reactivity and brain-activity screenings that focused on facial expression.

The "take away" was the reminder that if persistently negative moods are present in older people, it is not a normal part of aging.

If you have an aging partner or friend who is increasingly irritable or out of sorts, a variety of things could be happening. Don't just label them "old and cranky." Constant irritability can be a sign of depression in an aging adult (especially males) or tied to pain management (or lack thereof). Sometimes grief and loss show up as crankiness.

So what's "normal" in terms of our aging brain and moods? Actually, there are some fairly predictable changes through the decades. Johns Hopkins is full of resources and has a quarterly bulletin on memory that gives you the full story at www.johnshopkinshealthalerts.com/reports/memory.

But let's try another question. True or False: There's a massive die-off in brain cells as we age.

If you think that's true (even esteemed clinical researchers used to believe it was — so don't feel badly if you get this one wrong), it's not. Oh sure, "some neurons are indeed lost, but the brain continues to grow new ones, just at a slower pace."

However — and this is true — as we get older we can definitely expect slowed cognitive processing and less complex reasoning ability. At about age 50, there tend to be some noticeable changes in memory function. Learning new things takes longer; multi-tasking becomes more difficult, attention to detail is harder. It's even more noticeable in your 60s. (As I say in the workshop I teach on memory difficulties, "That explains why I occasionally put a hot pad in the refrigerator.")

In our 70s, there's a wide variation in cognitive ability. But hear this: Many adults in their eighth decade and beyond (especially those with lifestyles that have included nutritionally-dense eating and daily exercise) not only remain cognitively alert to the end of their years — they consistently demonstrate the insight and wisdom gained from their life experience.

That's not a true-or-false question. It's a fact.

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