The aging brain: increase as well as decline

Quite a few commentators have noted the creaky ages of prominent politicians. Nancy Pelosi is 79, Bernie Sanders 78, Mitch McConnell 77, Joe Biden 76, and Donald Trump 73. I’ve tended to say that if they’re up to the task, their age is irrelevant (in Trump’s case, he’d be incompetent at any age).

Two recent articles took a different stance, arguing that the old should step down to give the young a chance. In a Politico article titled “America, the Gerontocracy,” Timothy Noah wrote that “the cause of greater diversity would be advanced, not thwarted, if a few more younger people penetrated the ranks of . . . American political leaders.” In an op-ed published in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles writer Amber Petrovich said the same: “Our elected representatives are not at all representative of the US population,” noting the median age of 65 of current US senators. People her age, the 38-year-old Petrovich noted, “barely stand a chance running against well-known, well-funded, and long-serving incumbents.”

The two articles made other points that might irritate our septuagenarian politicians. Petrovich said that the elderly are out of touch with the lives and concerns of young adults. We don’t have to worry about college loans, childcare costs, etc. Noah noted research that shows that cognitive functioning declines dramatically on average after age 70, and the types of intelligence that decline most sharply involve absorbing new information quickly and applying it creatively to problem solving.

Depressing stuff for those of us who’ve had our 70th birthdays. Our time has passed. Get out of the way.

Another article, this one in the July issue of The Atlantic, draws on similar research to give us a roadmap, not an exit, for our later years. Author Arthur C. Brooks said he has “been on a quest to turn my eventual professional decline from a matter of dread into an opportunity for progress.”

Mental processing speed and analytic capabilities start declining soon after age 50, Brooks acknowledged, but another form of intelligence increases through one’s 40s and doesn’t decline until very late in life. It is “crystallized intelligence” — the ability to use knowledge gained in the past. It’s why teaching is an ability that decays very late in life. “No matter what our profession, as we age we can dedicate ourselves to sharing knowledge in some meaningful way,” Brooks wrote.

Brooks’s advice to start detaching from career ambitions and scaling up service beginning in one’s 50s isn’t likely to be taken by those in the prime of their careers, but for retirees, the emphasis on service is worth heeding. With the realization that “people who focus on teaching and mentorship, broadly defined, peak later in life,” Brooks resigned his job as president of the American Enterprise Institute and shifted to college teaching.

Obviously, we aren’t all going to transition to literally standing in front of a classroom. But there are other ways to share the wisdom of age with those coming after us, including mentoring, tutoring, and coaching. From strangers in a volunteer program to our younger relatives, there are numerous people who would benefit from our crystallized intelligence.

Brooks’s advice is a formula for keeping our self-esteem intact. Sharing our wisdom is not a last resort but a use of knowledge that increasingly grows. “Fortunately, an effort to serve others can play to our strengths as we age,” Brooks wrote. His article has given me a different perspective on my aging brain: it’s rebalancing.




“[T]rump’s true statements are the notable outliers. . . . Trump’s childlike demeanor — his tantrums and fits, his narcissism, his breath-holding when he doesn’t get his way, his heavy reliance on ‘mean words,’ his endless pouting — hints that treating him like a kid and rewarding him for truth-telling rather than punishing him for lying might pay modest dividends.”
— Jack Shafer, Politico

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