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TLV Deep Dive: Is Older Better?

September 1, 2018
 
Youth is the time to study wisdom; old age is the time to practice it.”
- Jean Jacques Rousseau

 
IN THIS TLV DEEP DIVE:
 
- Ageism—a fear of our future, older selves and discrimination of the aged—is nothing new in our culture or world. But the perception of the age at which we begin to lose value is dropping fast.
- Turns out, ageism gets more fuel in our 30s and 40s, when—research shows—we are evolutionarily wired to be the least satisfied and most restless about life.
- Contrary to several myths of aging, all kinds of things begin to look up, including our happiness and overall wellbeing, after 50. And then it's only better from there.

IS OLDER BETTER?

Age is inevitable. Aging isn’t.”
- Mark Levy
 
On October 21, 1984, President Reagan and his opponent, Walter Mondale, faced off in a presidential debate, with journalist Henry Trewhitt of The Baltimore Sunserving as moderator. An exchange between Reagan, 73 years old at the time, and Trewhitt would become known as one of the most memorable moments in presidential debates. It went like this:
 
Mr. Trewhitt: “Mr. President, I want to raise an issue that I think has been lurking out there for two or three weeks and cast it specifically in national security terms. You already are the oldest president in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”
 
President Reagan: “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.If I still have time, I might add, Mr. Trewhitt, I might add that it was Seneca or it was Cicero, I don't know which, that said, ‘If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.’”
 
 
The line about Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” was met with laughter and applause. Even Mondale, then 56 years of age, couldn’t resist cracking a smile. Reagan’s retort is likely one of the wittiest responses in modern America to an age-old problem. It also cuts to the heart of an age-old debate: should we fear age or embrace it? 
 
THE FEAR OF OUR AGING SELVES
 
"I think it's your mental attitude. So many of us start dreading age in high school,
and that's a waste of a lovely life...Make the most of it
."
- Betty White (age 96 and still making movies & TV)
 
Ageism is prejudice or discrimination on the basis of age. (As if we don’t already have enough “isms” to worry about.) Activist Ashton Applewhite, who leads an anti-ageism movement, says, “Ageism is prejudice against our future selves.” While ageism can cut any way, it’s largely reserved for the old in cultures that fetishize youth (most of them). 
 
Of all the “isms” afflicting societies, ageism tends to get the least attention. Yet it can have real and damaging effects, like the marginalization of the aged and increasingly limited availability of jobs, healthcare, and various resources. 
 
The Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD) wrote, “Senectus morbidus est.“ In case you’re young enough never to have taken Latin, that’s the unsubtle declaration that “old age is a disease.” 
 
Ageism is as old as time—in our culture and others around the world. What seems new today, especially here in the U.S., is that the perceived age at which we begin to lose value is dropping fast. The tech industry, social media, and modern cosmetic medicine have created the perfect storm for a country officially terrified of every little wrinkle and desperate to keep up with rapidly changing—and broadly broadcast—expectations of aging. 
 
Apps galore let us photoshop our own pictures to make them social-media perfect. That cellulite in the bikini shot on your trip to Greece? Erased. Sagging jowls? Lifted. Waist too wide? Trimmed. Now all of your Instagram followers will not only be jealous of your travels, but also of your impossibly un-aging body. “Perfecting” and age-proofing bodies and making us feel badly about our own was once the devilish domain of magazines and Madison Avenue. Now we all possess that power—in our pockets.
 
 
Follow the link to see interactive before and after examples
of photoshopped social media photos
 
In 2007, Mark Zuckerberg infamously said, “Young people are just smarter.” Spoken like a true young person. (In 2018, that quote is being used in an age discrimination lawsuit against Facebook, and the entire enterprise is being called into question for what it has wrought on the world…Foresight is often the gift of the experienced.) 
 
In 2011, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla (then 56 years old) said that “people over forty-five basically die in terms of new ideas.” No surprise, then, that engineers in Silicon Valley as young as 30 are getting botox and hair plugs for fear of career doors shutting on them before they’ve even gotten the chance to have a mid-life crisis.
 
It is a great irony that several colorful characters of Silicon Valley—the place that pulled down the lower bound of ageism to a preposterous level—are now trying to “cure” death. This is because despite a fear of the signs of time, everyone wants more time—a truth that cuts to the heart of ageism’s paradox. 
 
Much time and many resources can be wasted on resisting the natural effects of the very thing we all want: a long life. Or we can discover and accept a truth of aging: we are evolutionarily wired for malaise and dissatisfaction in midlife, which can give the appearance that life is disappointing, which can in turn fuel ageist beliefs and fears. From there, we can use this knowledge to put time and resources to something far more productive and gratifying than trying to resist the effects of time’s arrow—livingour lives, hopefully long, assured by a truth lost in our fear of aging: older is better. 
 
Crow’s feet, aching backs, and all, it turns out much of what we are conditioned to believe and fear about getting old just isn’t true. In most cases, what awaits us is more happiness, more self-assuredness, more wisdom, more perspective, more refined life-skills, and more capacity to take it all in stride so that we can enjoy the ride.
 
A BRIEF HISTORY OF AGEISM IN THE UNITED STATES
 
Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter.” 
- Satchel Paige
 
In 1969, the National Capital Housing Authority decided to turn an apartment complex in Chevy Chase, MD, an affluent D.C. suburb, into public housing for the elderly poor. The notion of the elderly and the poor moving to their tony town was distressing to many in the community. Carl Bernstein, then a cub reporter for The Washington Post, covered the unfolding events in the paper. For an article titled “Age and race fears seen in housing opposition,” he interviewed then 42-year-old psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Butler, who helmed District of Columbia Advisory Committee on Aging. In this interview, Butler described the fears around the construction of this housing as “ageism,” introducing the term to the world.
 
In the U.S., it was the civil rights movement that would bring ageism to the fore. The Civil Rights Act of 1964—which ended segregation in public places and outlawed employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin—shone a light on all kinds of unequal employment situations. For the first time in our history, the fact that many Americans of certain ages were victim of prejudicial hiring and employment practices was openly discussed.
 
Under President Kennedy, Congress commissioned Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wurtz to compile data about ageism in the workplace. The results were not good. When Wurtz testified before Congress in 1967, he reported that applicants over 45 were barred from 25% of available private sector jobs; applicants over 55 were barred from half of all private sector jobs; and workers over 65 simply were neither wanted nor welcome in the workforce and had no statistical chance of getting a job.
 
From this report came the passage of the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which “protects certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges of employment.” It was followed by the 1975 Age Discrimination Act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”
 
Dr. Robert Butler, the coiner of “ageism,” remained committed to fighting for the rights and humanity of the old until his death in 2010 at 83. His great achievement was to push ageism as an affliction into our collective conscious. In 2008, Butler wrote his last book, The Longevity Revolution: The Benefits and Challenges of Living a Long Life. In it, he said:
 
The advent of possible means to delay aging and extend longevity is a great intellectual and social as well as medical achievement . . . The very words we use to describe people are undergoing greater scrutiny. It is ironic, then, that at the same time Americans are beginning to see an unfolding of the entire life cycle for a majority, we continue to have embedded in our culture a fear of growing old, manifest by negative stereotypes and language that belittles the very nature of growing old, its complexities and tremendous variability (Butler, 2008).
 
It’s ironic, indeed. And we can do something about it.
 
THE HAPPINESS CURVE: WHY WE'RE HAPPIER OVER 50
 
Old age takes away from us what we have inherited
 and gives us what we have earned.”
- Gerald Brenan
 
It’s useful, first, to put the human tendency towards ageism in the context of some human tendencies towards midlife malaise.
 
When journalist Jonathan Rauch, now 58, was in his forties, he felt a persistent restlessness and a generalized dissatisfaction with life. Yet he could point to no clear reasons as to why. Having won several awards for his writing, his career had far surpassed his youthful dreams. His material needs were met and then some. He was in a happy marriage. He had his health. That his discontent felt so irrational only made him feel worse. 
 
Looking around, though, at his friends also in their forties, Rauch noticed he was not alone in this midlife malaise. Like any good journalist, he began uncovering the research to see if there might be something to this observation. The fruit of this labor is his newly released book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.
 
It turns out there was something to this midlife malaise. Rauch discovered “the U-curve” of wellbeing and happiness across a life, which was a relatively new discovery in it of itself. 
 
In 2008, economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald conducted a study on the subject of happiness and wellbeing over the course of lives across 80 countries. What they discovered was that happiness and wellbeing look like a U when plotted against average lifespan. All things being equal, life starts out happy. Happiness begins to dip in our twenties and thirties, reaching a trough in our forties. Then at age 50, happiness and wellbeing begin to pick up and remain on a steady uptick for the duration of our lives. The U-curve holds despite the specifics of any country or individual life circumstances, including a nation’s overall economic conditions, if individuals are or are not married, and do or do not have children. 
 
 
On the face of it, the U-curve makes sense. In our twenties, we set out to make our ambitious and youthful dreams a reality. Naturally, then, we begin to compare ourselves to our peers—a propensity that picks up steam in our thirties and forties. This creates a natural focus on things like status, money, personal life success, and career success. 
 
Someone will always have more than we do, or someone’s life will always look more perfect than ours. So, insecurities mount and we become preoccupied with our inability to have achieved this or done that. We find ourselves on a hedonic treadmill, where no achievement or material good is capable of giving us any lasting satisfaction. Dissatisfaction, then, grips us, feeding a sense of malaise and disappointment about life. Is this all there is?
 
More interesting still is that the U-curve has been found amongst chimpanzees. They, too, show a similar U-shaped trajectory in wellbeing relative to their average lifespans. But they aren’t comparing their cars or job titles to their peers. What gives? 
 
That chimps also experience a midlife malaise is a new discovery, so the whys are not yet understood. But it suggests that primates tend to be wired for the U-curve, no matter the specifics of their lives or environments. 
 
One theory, Rauch explains, is that the U-curve is a natural occurrence in how the changes in our brains and values play off each other over time. At birth, we are wired for social competition and ambition. Yet ambition will never let us feel satisfied. So by midlife, we find ourselves disappointed by what our ambition has given us. As we move past midlife, we begin to naturally value social connections over competition. Evolutionarily, this could be to make sure we maintain our usefulness and value to family and community.
 
With social connection now prioritized, we are less caught up in what others’ lives look like and we care less about what they think of our lives. Ambition is no longer causing our brains to buzz with thoughts of inferiority or dissatisfaction. We don’t ruminate on the negative nearly as much as we did in our younger years. We’ve grown more skillful in regulating emotions. And we are doing more of what has been well proven to contribute to our overall happiness and wellbeing—spending more time with friends and family and in our communities.
 
It also makes some sense that if we are naturally wired to feel disaffected, disappointed, and dissatisfied in our thirties and forties, we could begin to worry that it all only gets worse from here, feeding our fears of growing old. No wonder this midlife malaise—and our reaction to it—feels that much more intense when social media has opened more channels through which we can compare and contrast our lives to peers…and peers of peers of peers. No wonder we are ever more grasping desperately to maintain the appearances and attitudes of “youth” when we believe this is as good as it gets.
 
Happily, though, this is by far not the case.
 
If our midlife naturally creates a feeling of persistent challenge and struggle, then our fifties and beyond allow us to reap the rewards of overcoming that sense of strife. The struggles of our midlife set the stage for the perspective that allows life to feel a bit less fraught and a bit happier once we turn 50. Put another way: in the first half of our lives, we build character. In the second, we get to simply enjoy our character, whatever that may be. All things being equal, older truly isbetter.
 
DEBUNKING COMMON MYTHS ABOUT THE OLD
 
Youth is the gift of nature, but age is a work of art.” 
- Stanislaw Jerzy Lec
 
Like many “isms,” ageism is born from fear and ignorance. Correcting that ignorance—educating ourselves about the typical emotional trajectory of life and what being older and old is really like—is a surefire way to combat ageism. After all, ageism is a fear of our future self. Reversing its grasp on us—and our culture—starts within.
 
Most of us have seen first-hand the challenges that can come with aging. Some people face real difficulty in their advanced years. But not everyone does. The perception that all elderly suffer in a range of ways is a function of ageist stereotypes and fears. While we don’t want to diminish the cases of genuine hardship, we want to educate and remind that there can be much to look forward to and embrace in older age. 
 
So let’s debunk some common myths of the old and of aging.
 
Old people feel old: false
What the young, less young, and beginning-to-get-AARP-mail often fail to understand is that most old people still feel like themselves. And perhaps even a younger version of themselves; a Pew study found that the older people get, the younger they tend to feel. That can be, perhaps, one silver lining of age-based stereotypes; as people age, most do not find their lives meeting their perceived fears and expectations about being old.
 
The old are riddled with regret: false
In that same Pew study, even though respondents over 80 reported noticing more issues related to aging (memory loss, no longer able to drive, illness, etc.), only 1% of them said that their lives turned out worse than they expected. The rest appear to have made peace with their lives and reported enjoying many of the benefits that come with age (e.g. more time for hobbies and interests, more time to spend with family, more travel time, etc.)
 
The old are depressed: false
Just as happiness takes a U-shaped curve over life, the likelihood of depression takes a dome-shaped curve over life. Depression is most likely and statistically prevalent in that trough in our forties. And we know now that from age 50, our emotional wellbeing is on the up and up. 
 
The old can’t drive: false
In 2009, 25% of Americans aged 85 and older said they no longer drove compared with 17% of those ages 75-84 and 10% of those who were 65-74. And contrary to another common myth, older drivers are not a greater threat on the road. According to a study, by far the most dangerous drivers on the road are 17- to 21-year-old men, who are three to four times more likely to have an accident than 70-year-old drivers. The study found that older drivers, who represent 15% of all licensed drivers, cause 7% of all two-car accidents. Younger drivers, who represent 13% of all licensed drivers, cause 43% of all two-car accidents. (And if you’re wondering, people in their forties tend to be the safest drivers.)
 
The old live under the constant fear of death: false
That worry is more common among the young (and commonly projected onto the old). The older are more socialized to the fact that life won’t last forever and death is more normalized. This acceptance of the inevitable that awaits all of us often liberates the old from worry and allows them to enjoy their lives more.
 
How we age is up to genetics: false
This plays both ways. How we eat, how we take care of our bodies, with whom we surround ourselves, how we cope with stress, and the lifestyle choices we make throughout our entire lives all have an enormous impact on how we will age. Thanks to the discovery of epigenetics, we know that our choices can change our genes—for better or worse.
 
The old are weak and frail: false
While it’s true that osteoporosis is a risk of aging, it’s not a guarantee. This is 2018, after all. We have medicines and preventative care. We also know that strength training and mobility exercises greatly protect the body from decline and risk of falls and injuries. (And we know that falls and injuries are by no means the province of the old. Anyone over 30 who’s been to a gym can tell you that.) Today’s seniors benefit from adopting healthier diets and exercise habits, the rewards of which they are reaping well into old age. For more on this topic: Your body's breakdown is not inevitable, study indicates.
 
Your brain shrinks with age: false
Stress can shrink the hippocampus (where the brain processes long-term memories and emotional responses); age does not necessarily. The belief that it does is largely anecdotal. In healthy brains, this is a use it or lose it situation. 
 
Old age destroys libido: false
Let’s just put it this way…Google “STD epidemic in retirement communities” and note to self you’re never too old for safe sex practices!
 
Most old people are in nursing homes: false
In 2014, 1.4 million residents were living in U.S. nursing homes, corresponding to 2.6 % of the over-65 population and 9.5% of the over-85 population.
 
OLDER IS BETTER: EMBRACING LIFE'S 3RD ACT
 
For the unlearned, old age is winter;
 for the learned, it is the season of the harvest.”
- Hasidic proverb
 
Now let’s embrace some facts of old age.
 
The age you feel means more than your actual birthdate
Scientists have become intrigued by the concept of “subjective age”—the idea that how old you feel impacts your physical health and vitality. Turns out, a study found that the older who feel younger than their age became more conscientious and less neurotic; are at lower risk of depression; have a lower risk of dementia; and have a lower risk of hospitalization for illness. Those who felt between 8 and 13 years older than their age had an 18% to 25% greater risk of death over the period of this study.
 
What this comes down to is that the more we can resist internalizing stereotypes and expectations of aging, the less likely we will become them. 
 
The older are wiser
Looking to determine if old age really does bring wisdom, psychologists studied wisdom as a function of conflict resolution, across age groups of Japanese and American participants. The researchers measured the extent to which participants’ responses conveyed six previously established characteristics of wise reasoning: 1) considering the perspectives of others; 2) recognizing the likelihood of change; 3) recognizing multiple possibilities; 4) recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge; 5) attempting to compromise; and 6) predicting the resolution of the conflict.
 
Japanese culture tends to emphasize social cohesion. Avoidance tactics and mediation are often used to solve conflict. In the U.S., where individuality is valued, people tend to solve conflict directly and through persuasion.
 
The researchers found that while wisdom is higher among younger Japanese, it remains relatively flat over time. Whereas Americans showed a noticeable uptick in wisdom gained throughout a lifespan. In other words, older Americans become more effective at solving conflict through improvement across the six indicators of wisdom used in the study. (Culture, then, is also shown to have a huge impact on wisdom.)
 
Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve, says that our sixties and seventies are our prime emotional years, in large part due to the wisdom we’ve accumulated and applied. In an interview about his book, he explains why wisdom boosts happiness: 
 
Wisdom is related to maintaining emotional equilibrium, being able to balance multiple points of view, having a larger perspective on life, having some experience about how to handle ourselves and others, caring about others, and not being a drama queen. All of those things are good for happiness. Best of all: They are also good for the happiness of those around us! If there’s one virtue I wish our society valued more, it’s wisdom.
 
The amazing fertility of the older mind
It was once thought that the older brain was simply incapable of learning and retaining much. Then it was discovered that the brain is plastic, but it was thought that plasticity sharply declined with age. New research shows that the brain’s neuroplasticity declines only gradually—and can be offset by learning new skills. 
 
Research shows that learning new skills—like quilting or photography, skills that require active and prolonged engagement—as opposed to engaging in cognitive challenges like crosswords and puzzles, can have a huge impact on memory. Another study found that older people often lack confidence in their memories (too many years, perhaps, of internalizing expectations of aging), which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and impair memory.
 
The reality is that the brain remains fertile and plastic our entire lives. Yet its fertility and plasticity are largely a function of what we do with our brains. Use them wisely.
 
The benefits of getting older
Turns out, an immune system that’s been around the block a few times is a stronger one. In terms of run of the mill, common illnesses, the old get fewer of them. The old get fewer colds than the young. Surprisingly, they are more likely to survive outbreaks (e.g. swine flu) than the young. And the old experience fewer allergies.
 
TED Talk: Older people are happier
Still not convinced older is better? Here’s a TED Talk—from Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Longevity Center—chock full of data to get you on board.
 

TED Talk: Beach body at 90!
Disease is not a natural consequence of aging, says this 93-year-old weight lifter. A retired dentist who discovered a new fitness program at 85, Charles Eugster shares the three factors that contribute to successful aging: work, diet, and exercise—in that order.
 
 
TED Talk: Let’s end ageism
And if you need a final rally cry, here it is—from anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite.
 
 
Yeah, there are experiences that come with aging that can be tough. But take a moment to reflect on how much about being young was/is tough, too. Life is going to present struggles and aches and pains throughout the whole darn thing. If you’re lucky, you’ll live long enough to have a lot of them—culling each for its potential growth and wisdom. So that with each new struggle, you’ve got a little more perspective, confidence, and experience to handle it with far more grace and strength than available to you when you were a whippersnapper. 
 
Life is a long tradeoff, with many of its benefits awaiting you well into your oldest age.
 


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