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'Aging IQ' requires constant learning

We all know someone who might be referred to as old. You may have become accustomed to the term, "60 is the new 40," but if you've had five, six or more decades of living — "old" is a word that might be used to describe you — or me.

I recently turned 65, but I can't say I feel it fits me. I'm always a little surprised when I mention my age to people and they seem to accept it without comment. Maybe they're thinking, "Well, of course you're that old "… it makes sense."

But sometimes, I must admit, I want them to say, "Noooo, you can't be 65?" Although then it might be followed with, "You're really that old?" or even, "I actually thought you were a lot older."

Those of you who, long ago, gracefully integrated decades of satisfied living (many more than I can claim) may be thinking, "She's a little sensitive about all this, don't you think?" Not really. Well, maybe. The receipt of my Medicare card has prompted me to take a new look at being "older." As my granddaughter said at her sixth birthday — "I've never been this old before — I wonder what it will be like."

So let's talk about what it might be like. Not to worry, when I meet you on the street, I won't start the conversation with, "How old are you?" or "What year were you born?" The latter, I've learned, is the more gracious way to pose that question. But when we meet, I may query you about "aging IQ"

The National Institute on Aging has a publication on that topic that captured my attention this week. You can find more information at www.nihseniorhealth.gov. The specific publication (No.10-5431) contains a series of stories about individuals involved in later-in-life situational changes.

It poses questions (and answers) you may not have considered. It's an IQ test of sorts and offers a few surprises about the kind of information we need as we age. It's a little more direct than most publications. I'm modifying one illustration for the purposes of this column.

The story introduces "Mary," who's 66. She's been a widow for several years. Some months ago, she was asked out on a dinner date by "George," who's in his 70s. Social connectedness is important as we age, and they seemed to know that. George and Mary got along really well and George proposed marriage. It's a later-in-life situational change with many dimensions, including re-established intimacy. Mary wasn't entirely sure how to respond to George's upfront inquiry about their respective sexual histories and was initially caught off guard, then pleased, when he introduced the concept of their having protected sex.

No, this column is not about sexuality and aging. (However, that might be an interesting topic for another day). Today's focus involves bumping up your "aging IQ" and being open to information you may not have thought you even needed. For example, the NIA publication indicates "15 percent of all people newly diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the United States are age 50 and older."

As we age, acquiring new information can be life-critical. Research shows continuous learning keeps us younger.

Don't go to sleep tonight without identifying something new you've learned today. Let's all do that. And repeat that approach on consecutive nights — for the rest of our lives. Heck, we're not old — we've only just begun.

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.