What gets better with age

February 22, 2015
older people having fun

Here’s what young people don’t know about getting old: life can be better. The third age is not all about decline and debility. It’s also about liberation: not caring so much what people think of you, feeling freer to be yourself. “I don’t take no shit from nobody,” a woman joked at a panel discussion on ageing I attended last week. With older years, you can be less polite but also less competitive and more generous. Many things improve with age. We haven’t talked enough about the gains.

The federal government is soon to release Treasury’s Intergenerational Report about the budgetary challenges of our ageing population. The danger is the report will re-enforce the image of older people as plagued by illness, frailty, and dementia. In fact, for most of the 30-year stretch we call our older years, most people are doing well. The last year or so of life can be bleak. But the upside of an ageing population is that we have millions of mature people who are better educated and generally healthier and wealthier than previous generations of the elderly. They’ve much to offer. They’re a resource to be tapped.

I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna, seeing only the good side. I’m not one of those age denialists who think every 70-year-old is capable of scaling Everest. How well we age depends a lot on our economic circumstances. The poverty, harsh working conditions, and poor education of our younger years can exact an awful toll in old age. There is enormous variation in how people age.

I also think getting older involves gains and losses. Just like being 20 was no unmitigated joy, rather a mix of angst and excitement, so being post-60, 70 or 80 is a grab bag of advances and setbacks. The losses for the elderly are well-known: the senior moment, the falls, the poorer eyesight; and the health issues that accumulate faster past the 80th birthday when arthritis, osteoporosis, and hypertension are normal.

But the gains are less well-known to the young. Emotional stability improves with age. Expertise deepens. Older adults typically report better marriages, and less troubling relationships all round, according to a US study. Older people are more open to new ideas and less rigid than previously thought, other research indicates. And older people commit fewer crimes.

If old age is so awful, why are older people generally happier than the young and middle-aged? The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health has been following three age groups since 1996 and provides evidence that older people are less prone to depression and anxiety. “Women’s mental health gets better as they age,” Professor Julie Byles, who heads the study, told me. “It starts to deteriorate between the ages of 80 and 85 but it never returns to the level it was in their 40s.” And thankfully, it doesn’t approach the levels of many in their 20s.

What’s true of women is also true of men. Professor Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford University’s Centre on Longevity, told the Wall Street Journal, “Contrary to the popular view that youth is the best time of life, the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.” Her research shows older people tend to see the good more than the bad; are less willing to tolerate the superficial; and value their deepest relationships more than ever.

An excellent new Australian website gives insight into how a diverse range of Australians experiences ageing. It’s based on videoed interviews conducted by researchers from La Trobe, Monash and Sydney universities. And I’d encourage you to listen to these authentic voices.

What’s clear is that physical decline is inevitable as we age. Nora Lee, the panellist I quoted earlier, who features in one of the videos, told of how she’d crossed a threshold recently. A box of Panadol would once have remained unused in her medicine cabinet. “Now Panadol’s my new best friend,” she said, “because of the aches and pains.” Even so, the Australian women’s health study shows half the participants maintained a high level of physical health as they moved from their 70s into their 80s. They were still capable of walking a kilometre and hiking up a couple of flights of stairs.

But who’s not worried about their brain? A lot of attention is focused on the region of the brain that controls working memory and does decline with age. We do become less adept at processing information quickly, or retrieving a name from our crowded memory bank. But as Professor Carstensen has written we mustn’t conflate normal cognitive ageing with dementia. Much less publicity is given to the part of the brain that doesn’t decline, that allows most of us to function well in the world through acquired knowledge and practical experience.

Yes, there are worrying issues with an ageing society because so many more older people are alive now than at any time in history. The numbers with dementia, as a result, are projected to be large. And the numbers in their 80s and 90s who will need some support mean this is no time to stint on services for the elderly.

But the other story needs to be told. With enough resources, life can become more enriching and rewarding as we get older. Ageism is bad. Ageing is not so bad at all.

I’d love to hear your view on the gains and losses of getting older. Please leave a comment.

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