If you set out to learn a foreign language along with your kid, get ready for a provocative lesson about brain aging: At some point, you’re likely to find yourself falling ever farther behind, laboriously struggling to implant new words in your plainly decayed memory while your youngster absorbs them like animal crackers.
But the standard picture of one-way cognitive decline after about age 25 is way too simple, according to psychologists who study brain aging. In fact, their work suggests that cognitive development actually continues through middle age, and even beyond. The gist of this later development was nicely captured by the great Polish-American pianist Arthur Rubenstein, who continued to perform until he was pushing 90 (he died at 95): When asked at 80 how he managed to continue giving such good concerts, he explained that he relied on three strategems–he played fewer pieces, he practiced the pieces more often, and he used dramatically contrasting tempi to make it appear that he could play the piano faster than he actually could.
Psychologists posit that such compensatory adjustments reflect a potent capacity for “adaptive self-plasticity” built into the human genome. As we age, this capacity lets us evolve our software, so to speak, to help compensate for our inevitable loss of hardware speed and data-handling capacity. As a result, mental aging tends to bring both gains and losses. Over the past two decades, the researchers have focused on elucidating the gains, and their findings have exploded the idea that mental aging is no more than a story of decay.
For instance, they’ve shown that specialized knowledge, unlike the mental speed and accuracy of youth, can be retained through old age if used fairly often and not impaired by brain diseases. In fact, a 1999 study of people who regularly work crossword puzzles showed that the highest average level of performance on them was achieved by people in their 60s and 70s.
Another compensatory strength that comes to the fore as we age is emotional intelligence, the ability to understand the causes of one’s own and others’ feelings. We also get better at regulating our emotions. These emotion-related pluses are often more important in real-life situations than the ability to quickly deal with a lot of information. (The latter ability, by the way, is relatively easy to measure with simple tests, which is a major reason its age-related decline long dominated views on mental aging.) These pluses also underlie the “paradox of aging,” the fact that most people are happier during their later years than at any other time of their lives. Surveys show that stress and anger steadily decline after one’s 20s, that worry levels tend to fall off around age 50, and that what psychologists call global well-being (the overall appraisal of how one is doing in life) tends to slowly decline until one’s early 50s and then gradually rise–by their mid-60s, most people report significantly higher levels of well-being than they did in their 20s. (Self-reported sadness levels, though, remain nearly constant throughout life.)
Older adults also use their emotion-regulating power to deal with interpersonal tensions more effectively than younger ones do—one reason they experience less stress. In a clever study highlighting a related compensatory plus of aging, researchers asked young (aged 20-30) and older (60 to 75) adults to perform a simple memory task after watching a particularly yucky film clip. (It depicted a woman eating horse rectum in order to win money.) The young group’s performance on the memory task dropped sharply soon after they viewed the clip–it appeared they had to devote a great deal of their mental energy to suppressing their disgust in order to focus on the task at hand. Meanwhile, the older adults were able to improve their performance soon after watching the clip–it wasn’t all that hard for them to detach themselves from their negative emotions.
In another recent study titled “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” researchers asked young and old adults to play a computerized game of risk in which they opened a sequence of boxes, each of which contained either a point gain or a devil icon–hitting Satan wiped out all the gains in that round. At any point, they could either risk opening the next box in the sequence, or they could stop and add their gains from boxes opened at that point to their grand total. But if they chose to stop, they were shown what was in the unopened boxes, confronting them with missed chances for gains. Here’s what happened: The young adults tended to take more risks after viewing missed chances in the previous trial, a strategy that was irrational since the devil’s position in one trial said nothing about where it would be in the next–it seemed they were moved by anger and regret to take extra chances. In contrast, the older adults didn’t change their risk-taking based on missed chances–they tended to play with rational detachment.
(This study reminded me that one of the most spectacular examples of disastrous risk-taking in recent years involved a 20-something trader at Switzerland’s UBS investment bank who managed to blow away $2.3 billion in a series of reckless bets that went ever more wrong. Then, suddenly, I felt compelled to check the ages of the people managing the mutual funds in my IRA.)
The Piaget of later-life cognitive development is psychologist Laura Carstensen, founding director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity. About 20 years ago she and colleagues began rethinking the idea that inexorable dwindling is the dominant theme of later life when examining how people’s social networks contract as they age. Authorities on aging had long viewed this contraction as part of the general decline of aging–the result of worsening health, loss of mental capacity, decreased mobility, increasing detachment from external events. But Carstensen showed that the contraction tends to start in early adulthood and thus doesn’t result from cognitive loss. Moreover, she found that social networks tend to include comparable numbers of very close relationships throughout adulthood despite getting smaller. What really happens, she concluded, is that we “proactively prune” our social networks as we age in order to increasingly focus on fewer but emotionally significant social partners.
In general, “socioemotional selectivity” is the essence of later cognitive development, she theorizes. Early in life, when all things are possible (or at least seem to be), it makes sense to cast our nets wide, fairly indiscriminately seeking new relationships and novel experiences in order to gain resources to realize future aspirations–even if the experiences are stressful. But as we age, maximizing emotional meaning begins to take precedence, and around midlife it appears that most of us become increasingly motivated to make the most of our remaining time and thus put a high priority on quality of life.
In short, as we age we wisely draw on our great plasticity to optimize our emotional climates: “Good times are cherished, and there is greater recognition that bad times will pass,” she wrote in A Long Bright Future, a 2009 book based on her findings about the aging mind. “People are more likely to forgive when time horizons are limited. Even the very experience of emotion changes with age; feelings grow richer and more complex…One of my favorite findings about long-term marriages is that even unhappily married couples report that, after many years together, they are happier than they used to be. It’s actually the relatively early years of marriage…that take the biggest toll on marital contentment.”
Carstensen and other “life-span” psychologists are careful not to romanticize old age, noting that their upbeat findings often don’t apply to those in poor health or living in poverty. Further, they point out, the happy days between about 60 and 80 tend to give way to unhappy days for more and more people after 80 as the limits of adaptability are reached. And dementia represents a huge problem as more of us live longer.
Still, the fact that researchers have given detailed substance to the idea that we become happier and, in ways that really matter, smarter as we age can’t help but give older language learners some solace as they struggle with their word lists.