Another year, another birthday. A few more grey hairs have sprouted and your joints are just a little creakier. Songs from your teen years are called golden oldies, and now and then, you forget what you went into the kitchen to do. Yes my friend, you’re getting older, and starting to feel it too.
Still, it’s not all bad. There are good days, even great ones, and you smile as you reminisce about the good old days. Sometimes, though, you can’t help but feel like life is on the decline. Is there anything to look forward to? Are your best years behind you?
Author Daniel Levitin, in his book, The Changing Mind, writes that contrary to outdated ideas of ageing and old age, it is possible to not only improve, but thrive as we get older. Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, he explains how to counteract the slowdown of our cognitive and physical abilities and provides a practical plan for enhancing our cognitive health during each decade of life.
Are you dreading getting older? You don’t have to continue feeling that way. Starting today, you can do something to improve your chances of a happy, healthy and fulfilling life later on. The research shows that there a number of factors that determine how well we age, and these are the ones that matter most.
1. Be prepared and reliable
Probably the most widely accepted personality theory by psychologists, the Big Five Model describes human personality in terms of five factors. Unlike other theories that identify individuals as either having or not having a particular trait, the Big Five Model treats each trait as a spectrum. Individuals are ranked on that scale between the two extremes. Your personality is made up of this unique collection of traits and is expressed in how you think, feel and behave.
Surprisingly, (at least to me) the research indicates that your score on a Big Five trait called Conscientiousness is the most important factor in determining how well you age.
According to Psychology Today, Conscientiousness reflects the tendency to be responsible, organised, hard-working, goal-directed, and to adhere to norms and rules. People who score high on this dimension tend to be prepared, pay attention to detail and do what they say they will do. Having such characteristics is important as it will help you control your impulses and keep your commitments. It even shows up in health-impacting actions like getting medical check-ups. Research shows that it is the trait most linked to healthy ageing and associated with a number of positive outcomes including: happiness, success and longevity.
So does this mean that a low score on the conscientiousness scale dooms you to age miserably?
Fortunately, no but you will have to cultivate some of its characteristics. Like the brain, your personality is malleable. Your genes determine about 50% while the rest depends on your experiences and behaviour. They can influence you to change. Research has found that people are capable of changing their personalities well into their eighties. As the author puts it: ‘We all have an internal narrative that dictates who we are, what we like and that dictates how we respond to certain events.’ You can change that narrative, you don’t have to remain wedded to past behaviour if it no longer serves you.
What you need to do
Change isn’t easy. As we get older, we tend to become creatures of habit. We grow complacent and resist anything new. You have to find a reason to want to change, the more compelling it is, the better. If you can connect with a strong why, you are more likely to keep taking action.
2. Go outside and get moving
Humans were not meant to be sedentary. Our evolution required that we explore our surroundings in order to stimulate our brains. Without that, the brain isn’t operating at its maximum potential and starts to slow down. That is still true today as evidenced by the research. Exercise, it shows, the type that gets the heart rate up and the brain full of oxygenated blood, is a major factor in staying the decline in mental vitality as you age.
In addition, exercising in various settings further stimulates brain circuits that evolved to adapt to the environment. It benefits memory too. To quote the author: ‘Adapting to new things, especially in the physical world, strengthening the visual-motor-kinaesthetic circuits in your brain, can make an enormous difference in fending off cognitive decline.‘
What you need to do
Understand that physical activity, especially outdoors, is extremely important. Now is not the time to retreat and become a couch potato. That doesn’t mean signing up for the next five mile, cross-country run but it does mean committing to walking and exploring for at least a few minutes a day.
3. Invest in relationships
You were built for social interaction and engaging with others remains one of the most complex processes you can do with your brain. Whether it’s having face-to-face discussions, playing music or sport, you’re often required to read verbal and non-verbal cues to respond appropriately or contribute.
All of these, exercise circuits in the brain and research shows that lack of connection is a predictor for disease and mortality. In contrast, people with strong social networks are less likely to develop conditions like dementia.
As you age, however, your social circle tends to shrink which is the reason you have to be deliberate about opening up to these interactions. The degree to which you embrace that is influenced by another of the Big Five personality traits, Openness.
Social investment, Shawn Achor, author of the book ‘The Happiness Advantage’ writes is one of the greatest predictors of success. It is the one thing that helps us the most in dealing with and thriving in challenging circumstances.
What you need to do
Your instinct may be to retreat and keep to yourself more and more. Resist it. Be open to making friends and trying new things. Keep your social circle alive and exciting.
Other useful nuggets
1. Let go of anger
Emotionally, anger and hate can weigh you down and impede your ability to engage socially. They also influence the people you attract and the quality of those emotional interactions. If you want to live a fulfilling and joyful old age, let go of anger, hate and other petty grievances. Watch your relationships blossom.
2. Older may be wiser but always keep learning
As you get older, your brain appears to slow down. Although it’s true that picking up a new skill is more difficult, the opposite is true in other areas. Abstract reasoning and practical intelligence increase with age and the more you’ve experienced, the better equipped you are to notice patterns, make smarter decisions and predict future outcomes.
You’ve accumulated a wealth of knowledge but to continue being cognitively healthy it’s also important to continue learning experientially. Want to stay vibrant forever? Keep doing meaningful work and take advantage of the wealth of experience and wisdom you’ve accumulated. Make learning new things a priority, you’ll keep growing.
3. Adapt or be left behind
Remember as you age the changes in the world will seem alien to you. Whether that’s technology or music, you just can’t relate. The temptation is to turn away from these new developments but that is the time to embrace them or at least be curious about them. Commit to keeping informed about what’s happening.
That may require you to do things you wouldn’t normally do. You will probably have to step out of your comfort zone and open up to new experiences. Remember you can always adapt.
4. Count your blessings
Gratitude has been shown to alter brain chemistry towards more positive emotions. It’s a decision to to look at things through a lens of optimism and thankfulness. By doing that you change how you process events in the world and that in turn changes how you react to those events. It doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the negative but shifting your focus to finding ways to rise above your circumstances. Practise gratitude for what you have.
Step into the future with confidence, optimism and yes, a lot of excitement
When asked to identify the age at which they were the happiest, the age given by older people is eighty-two! Isn’t it thrilling to know that whatever age you are right now there are still great chapters to be written. By looking at old age not as the end of the road but as a unique period of potential growth and opportunity, you can start to get excited again.
Embrace a healthy lifestyle and get outdoors. Be open to meeting new people while nurturing those important relationships in your life. Let go of the negative and be more forgiving. If you want to be happier be thankful for all that you have.
Believe that you can adapt to whatever comes your way and transform your life at any age. You are infinitely capable and who knows, with the right attitude and behaviours the next phase of your life could be the best one yet.
Now over to you.
Did any of these factors surprise you?
Are there any you’ve been neglecting?
What is one area you can work on today?
Let me know in the comments.
The Changing Mind by Daniel Levitin.