How to address our fears about getting older
Last week, we discussed the fear of getting older, a few ways to address those fears and some facts affirming the upside of aging. This week’s column expands on some of those facts.
Let’s first address two realities: Reality No. 1: Aging ultimately is a declining progress and one we can slow down through adopting a healthy lifestyle. Reality No. 2: At some point, each of us will exit the planet. With that awareness, we can make the best use of the gift of time by living a fuller and more intentional life.
Here are four encouraging evidence-based facts about aging.
Living longer: The good news is that we are living longer lives. Life expectancy at birth in 2021 was almost 79 years compared to age 47 in 1900. And at age 65, there is life ahead. In 2021, the average life expectancy for those reaching age 65 was 18.8 years. That was a drop from 19.6 years in 2019 which has been attributed, in part, to COVID-19. Living to age 100 is a reality and the subject of research studies, reports, conferences and books. One example of the latter is “The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity,” (2016, Bloomsbury) by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, both from the London Business school. They provide a wake-up call for individuals, politicians, firms and government on how a 100-year life can be wonderful and inspiring. However, one of our greatest challenges to this increased life expectancy is matching our healthspan to our life span.
Improved mental capacity: We know certain areas of mental functioning decline with age. We can forget a person’s name, the name of our favorite rock star or composer or for a split second, the name of someone we are about to introduce. In most cases, this is considered normal aging. Despite some of these changes, we do get better at certain cognitive functions. One of those is called crystallized intelligence, the ability to use knowledge acquired through education and experience. This type of intelligence increases throughout adulthood and improves through learning. We use crystallized intelligence in recalling events from the past, dates, geographic locations and whenever we encounter tasks that require the use of previously acquired knowledge. This type of intelligence also plays a role in increasing our vocabulary which occurs with age.
Being happier: One might assume that as older adults have more creaky joints and chronic conditions, change in stamina and loss of loved ones, they would become less happy with age. That’s not the case. What has emerged is the paradox of happiness often referred to as the Happiness U-Curve developed by Jonathan Rauch and author of “The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After Midlife” (2019, St. Martin’s Press). Data indicates that on average, life satisfaction drops during middle age and starts to recover around age 50, reaching its peak at the end of life. This is true only up to a point when those who are very old experience decline in emotional and physical well-being. The question is “why?” Some psychologists believe that older adults tend to remembers positive events and let go of the negative events which adds to their happiness. Others suggest that older adults do not experience negative emotions as intensely as their younger counterpart, that they can regulate their emotions and because of experience can “roll with the punches.”
Becoming wiser: Compared to younger people, older adults have better control over their emotions, know themselves better and make decisions that depend on their experience. They also extend more compassion and empathy to others. These characteristics are considered elements of wisdom that accompany experience according to Dr. Dilip Jesete, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at UC San Diego as quoted in Nautilus. And with longer life, we have more experience. Others agree that wisdom grows with age, but it is not automatic. Rather it is for those who seek it and nurture it. Then there is the famous Socrates line, “The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing” which may apply to any age.
These are just four areas where age has its advantages. Of course, there are many others such as deepened relationships, grandchildren, in some cases spirituality and continuous learning, to name a few. Although aging may have some bumps in the road, let’s recognize and appreciate the opportunities for longevity, mental health, happiness and wisdom. Stay well and let us all embrace our age.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity.