The other day I was driving across town—a route I have taken many times—when I suddenly found myself not quite sure where I was. This strange and disconcerting feeling lasted only a few seconds. Later, I was talking with a colleague and forgot a common word that I have used millions of times.
Yes, I am not far from becoming an official member of the Medicare generation. I have heard all the jokes about getting old; many of them I have gleefully subjected my older friends to (you know who you are!). But now it is happening to me. My granddaughter called the other day to wish me a happy birthday. She asked how old I was, and I told her: 64. She was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Did you start at 1?”
I don’t know about you, but the animated tales that dominate all discussions about aging—you know, the ones that tell us that age is just a state of mind, that 60 is the new 40 and 80 the new 60—are starting to irritate me. What’s next: 100 as the new middle age? Truth be told, I don’t feel old. In fact, I’m just now getting up to speed.
In my day, I’ve been a messenger with information that the brain cannot grow new cells or older adults cannot learn as well as younger people. I’ve even taught that connections between neurons are relatively fixed throughout life and intelligence is a matter of how many neurons you have and how fast those neurons work.
I now know that those “facts” are entirely wrong! According to James Trefil, a physicist and author, “Your brain never stops developing and changing. It’s been doing it from the time you were an embryo, and will keep doing it all your life. And this ability, perhaps, represents its greatest strength.”1
Research has shown that the brain is more resilient, adaptable, and capable than we long thought. The brain’s emotional circuitry matures and becomes more balanced with age.2 Thank goodness for that! Researchers on the brain are also telling us that older adults more equally use the brain’s two hemispheres—however, I’ve often been accused of using neither!
But before I get too excited about these new findings, I guess I have to admit that the brain is not immune to age-related changes and that our brain cells can indeed wear out with age. Take, for example, the speed with which it can solve math problems. (Hey, I’ve never been that fast with math, anyway.) Researchers are also telling us that much of the decline in mental ability, touted for so long as associated with the aging process, is actually the result of microstrokes, Alzheimer’s disease, or mental illness. Movies like The Notebook and A Beautiful Mind remind us of the sobering symptoms of those diseases.
I recently attended a lecture on aging at our university by an expert on the importance of the “arts” in enhancing brain fitness. The speaker, Dr. Andrea Sherman, enlightened all regarding Creativity: The Critical Link in Person-Centered Care. She described a number of studies that show a connection between leisure activities (a term I am becoming fond of) and decreasing risk for dementia and cognitive decline. Some of those activities include dancing, playing board games, playing a musical instrument, doing crossword puzzles, and even just reading. (Except for the last one, I haven’t been too inclined to participate. I have, however, been an avid viewer of “Dancing with the Stars”—although I’m not sure that activity counts.)
When I was younger, there were two things I looked forward to about getting older. First, I thought by the time I got to this age I’d have it all figured out. Well, I don’t! Second, I expected that when I reached the magic age, I could retire to leisure activities. Well, I’m not seeing it.
Kidding aside, there are reasons to embrace aging. We’ve all heard that “Getting older beats the alternative.” Well, it’s true, and it’s also true that growing “old” today is better than it has ever been before.
Why? For one thing, there will soon be a billion people older than 60, making us 20% of the world’s population. As a result, global corporations—and even Hollywood!—have started gearing their products and services toward baby boomers (who still have more buying power than any other generation). We’re living longer, and many in better health, than our parents, giving us the vitality to continue to contribute to our professions and our communities—and even become entrepreneurs in our “second career”!3