The aging brain: Why getting older just might be awesome

You can seek out new environments that support your insights and creativity, experts say.

Story highlights

  • Research details a number of ways in which the brain actually improves with age
  • Older people have a greater capacity for empathy because empathy is learned
  • An aging brain can better tease out patterns and see the big picture
  • We are better able to anticipate problems and reason things out
Google "the aging brain" and you will find a largely sobering landscape of cognitive deterioration.
("Funny," said the dashing older gentleman I tried to interview for this piece. "I don't remember being absent-minded.")
But turn the kaleidoscope of our knowledge about the aging brain and a far more interesting picture emerges.
The prevailing wisdom is that creative endeavors are good for helping to slow the decline of our mental capabilities. But what if, in fact, the aging brain is more capable than its younger counterpart at creativity and innovation?
It's a compelling proposition in our society, where more and more seniors are looking for jobs and going back to work (the number of working seniors has more than doubled since 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics); where ageism is rampant in many areas (particularly hiring); and where innovation is, for the most part, considered a young person's domain.
Bad news from the psych labs
A large body of research about aging tells us that as we cross the threshold into middle age, neural connections that receive, process and transmit information can weaken from age and disuse. It may take us longer to learn new information. We often can't think as sharply or as quickly. Our reaction times may be slower.
Researchers also tell us that older people have a harder time multitasking. We can become more forgetful, resulting in those tip-of-the-tongue moments where familiar words, names and concepts lie just out of reach. An older person is more easily distracted and more prone to daydreaming and errors.
Disconcerting, yes, but also an incomplete picture.
In his book, "Major Issues in Cognitive Aging," Timothy A. Salthouse, professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Aging Laboratory at the University of Virginia, writes, "Although there is no shortage of opinions about cognitive aging, it sometimes seems that relatively few of the claims are based on well-established empirical evidence ... assertions about cognitive aging may be influenced as much by the authors' preconceptions and attitudes as by systematic evaluations of empirical research."
Salthouse goes on to make two more significant observations about cognitive aging: Discoveries of decline in the laboratory do not necessarily correlate to success out in the real world, and there is often considerable variation among different people of the same age.
Place these findings alongside research about the power of suggestion (both deliberate and otherwise) and how response expectancies -- the ways in which we anticipate a specific outcome -- drive subsequent thoughts and behaviors that will actually help to bring that outcome to fruition. And suddenly you have a whole new narrative about the possibilities of healthy aging.
As Ron, one of our readers, pointed out in a Facebook message following this story of a few weeks ago, A creative life is a healthy life: "Want REAL innovation? Bring in the seniors."
Like a fine wine
Research details a number of ways in which the brain actually improves with age. And what's even more interesting is that many of these advanced abilities correlate with key conceptual elements of innovation and creativity.
This is particularly true for the human-centered design process -- empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test -- as outlined by the Institute of Design at Stanford, also known as "the d.school" where, in the interest of full disclosure, I have coached a design course called Sustainable Abundance.
"There are neuro-circuitry factors that can favor age in terms of innovation," observes Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Center on Aging.
First there is empathy, "the foundation of a human-centered desig