Can we stay smart and happy as we age? A link to a New York Times article sent by a friend led me to MIDUS, a national study of health and wellbeing in the U.S. as it relates to aging. From this study, researchers have concluded that the kind of intelligence that comes from experience and education (as opposed to the kind measured on IQ tests) is “much more dependent on a bouquet of influences, including personality, motivation, opportunity and culture.”
It’s true that our brains slow down as we age. It’s harder to remember the title of the movie we saw this time last year starring “what was that actor’s name?” Despite this, the researchers found that “All other things being equal, the more years of school a subject had, the better he or she performed on every mental test. Up to age 75, the studies showed, ‘people with college degrees performed on complex tasks like less-educated individuals who were 10 years younger.’” Having worked in some aspect of education all my life, I’m encouraged to see results like this, and, of course, I’m feeling more optimistic about what lies ahead as I get older.
Individuals who haven’t completed college shouldn’t despair. The research also shows that keeping the mind active through reading, doing puzzles, attending lectures and engaging in other mental challenges, can make a significant difference in later life.
On the MIDUS website are links to other interesting studies related to aging, one of which has to do with “happiness.” When we’re younger, we tend to view pleasureful moments as happiness. When we’re older, we’re more likely to define happiness as an overall sense of contentment and satisfaction. In a radio interview, The things that make us happy right now are not always the things that lead to a happier life, Carol Ryff, professor of psychology and director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, talked about happiness as “going after things that use your talents and abilities.” She says that “each of us comes into life with unique talents and capacities. Our task is to figure out what these are and realize them. Going after things that mean the most to you and that use your talents and abilities is the deeper and more meaningful kind of happiness. It gives people a deep sense of contentment.”
Dr. Ryff refers to one long-term study related to people who are meaningfully engaged in life and says “over a seven-year period they have shown that older people with higher levels of purpose in life were at reduced risk of cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s and had a reduced risk of mortality.” (In this quote she was referring to the subjects through the duration of the study, not suggesting we don’t all have a 100 percent risk of mortality.)
I feel fortunate to have found something in my previous job to excite my passion, even if only for the last few years of my career. And now I have my writing class and work on my novel to keep me pumped and enthusiastic, while giving my brain and imagination a strenuous workout.