Why You Really Can Look Forward to Growing Older

By RehabCare

6 myths about aging“Aging is a privilege denied to many.”

We echo this sentiment around birthdays to comfort someone who’s rounded another year. The statement is usually a welcome notion that eases our anxiety about changes in health and hair color.

At the same time, this truism insists that aging is a privilege because getting older is “better than the alternative.” This is unfortunate because compelling research proves that we need to replace our dread of the aging process with optimism about the benefits of maturing. Despite undeniable challenges, aging is a privilege in its own right.

A recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Why Everything You Think About Aging May Be Wrong”debunks six myths about our grey years:

Depression is more likely to affect older adults.

A growing number of studies suggest that our mood actually improves as we get older. Beginning in 1993, researchers from the Stanford University Center on Longevity paged 184 adults from the ages of 18 to 94 to assess each participant’s emotions. Individuals rated 19 different emotions five times a day for one week. The same exercise was conducted again five and 10 years afterward and showed that emotional well-being improves until our 70s and then stabilizes. The finding, says Professor Laura Cartensen, director of the Center on Longevity, is “contrary to the popular view that youth is the best time of life.”

And while emotional health might peak in the seventh decade, there’s good news for people who are living well past their 70s: centenarians report high levels of well-being, too.

Cognitive decline cannot be prevented.

Traditional assessments of human cognition may undermine mature adults’ real cognitive performance. While the human brain undergoes structural changes when we get older that slow information processing, regular cognitive and laboratory tests might not adequately measure adults’ true abilities in real-world situations.

Except in cases of dementia, “older adults who are tested in familiar situations show few of the deficits that crop up in laboratory tests” and perform better in familiar situations, says Timothy Salthouse, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

Older employees are less productive.

Stereotypes that paint older employees as less adaptable than their younger counterparts are common, but most academic studies find “virtually no relationship between age and job performance,” says Harvey Sterns, director of the Institute for Life-Span Development and Gerontology at the University of Akron. In fact, an experiment at a Mercedes-Benz assembly line showed that older workers made fewer severe errors after a four-year period. By contrast, younger workers committed slightly more severe errors over the same period of time.

Loneliness increases with age.

Professor Cartensen discovered that friendships generally improve with age, and after our 50s, we eliminate less meaningful connections to focus our energy on relationships that we find most emotionally satisfying.

We also feel more positive about these important relationships. Later in life, “loved ones seem to mean more than ever, and that is protective against loneliness,” says Professor Cartensen.

Creativity decreases with age.

Creative geniuses Mark Twain and Frank Lloyd Wright reached their maximum creative potential later in life, and David Galenson, professor at the University of Chicago, points to his theory of creative late bloomers. Professor Galenson suggests that these artists drew from an important advantage: wisdom that increased with age.

More exercise is better than moderate exercise.

More exercise is not always better because individuals reach “a point of diminishing returns.” A study from Iowa State University showed that while the mortality rate of runners is better than that of non-runners, the mortality benefits are actually similar for all runners.