Lifelong Learning and the Myths of Aging

Be prepared to take another look at life over the age of 40 and up. Studies continue to dispel the ideas that have surrounded aging and the productivity of older adults. The major fact that is starting to come to light is that life in many ways gets better with age. As time passes people often have improved moods and outlooks on life including an increased sense of well-being. Friendships grow more intimate and older adults definitely prioritize what matters most to them. Knowledge and certain types of intelligence continue to develop that offset age-related declines and expertise deepens with the benefit of enhancing productivity and creativity. As a result of life experiences, the ability to resolve conflicts and see multiple perspectives expands. In a recent Wall Street Journal article by Anne Tergesen six myths of aging were presented and dispelled. I will briefly reiterate them and let this validate the belief I hold that we can learn new things and benefit not only ourselves but those around us no matter our age.

Myth 1 – Older adults are more depressed.

Contrary to what people think a sense of well-being tends to improve into our 70s. In studies the sense of well-being has been measured by surveying participants based on feelings of positive and negative emotions. What has been discovered is that the ratio of positive to negative emotions steadily improved well into a person’s seventh decade. Older adults are more often willing to focus on the positive versus the negative and they seek memories and stimuli that enhance these feelings. Interestingly, the ability to focus on the positive lets older people prioritize their lives and adapt more easily to changing circumstances.

Myth 2 – Cognitive Decline is Inevitable

As we age our brain’s structure changes, with the result that in our 30s concentration starts to slip and the older brain can take longer to process and retrieve data from the store of information in our memories. What has been discovered in laboratory studies is that scientists tend to minimize the influence of past experience, which incorrectly skews results to benefit younger subjects. This is far from the real world we live in where real life experiences play a huge role in our daily decision-making processes. To boost cognitive functions and memory as we age thus keeping a youthful edge it has been discovered that 16 hours a week of learning new skills does wonders for the memory. These skills can range from quilting to learning to use an iPad. The key is to introduce novelty and create mental challenges.

Myth 3 – Older Workers are Less Productive

This myth stems from the stereotype that older workers are less adaptable therefore making them less productive. Conversely, most academic studies show the opposite and state there is no relationship between age and job performance. Jobs that require experience give older workers the edge and older workers are less prone to make serious errors in most cases.

Myth 4 – Older Adults are More Lonely

With age our social circles tend to contract but in most cases the existing relationships deepen leading to better marriages, supportive friendships and less conflict with children and siblings. Until about age 50 people continue to add to their social networks but then start to eliminate the people they feel less close to and maximize relationships with the people who are emotionally stimulating and satisfying. Family ties become more important and on average it has been found that older adults are less lonely than younger people.

Myth 5 – Creativity Declines with Age

Academic studies as far back as the 19th century have shown that midlife is the time when most scholars and artists are the most prolific. One reason for this is that the fields of pure mathematics and theoretical physics hinge on problem solving skills which are sharpest when people are in their 20s. Any field that requires accumulated knowledge and creativity shows people reaching their peaks often in their 60s. This can be seen when we view creative people in two categories; conceptual artists and experimental artists. The conceptual artist often peaks in their 20s and 30s because they work from imagination and the young are often more open to radical ideas. The experimental artist improves as they gain experience over the years perfecting their style and subject knowledge.

Myth 6 – More Exercise is Better

It is agreed that exercise is a key to great health and longevity but it is believed that there is also a point of diminishing return. This idea is based on a study of runners in Copenhagen. The runners easily outlived the non-runners but what is interesting is that runners who ran more than four hours a week at a fast pace of 7 miles per hour lost much if not all of the longevity benefits. Runners who had the biggest benefit were those who ran from 1 to 2.4 hours a week at the pace of 5 to 7 miles per hour while taking at least two days a week off from any vigorous exercise. In conclusion the scientist found that modest doses of running with at least one day off each week were healthier for the heart.

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