Tell Your Grandkids: Research Says Old Age Really Makes You Wise

The Sun Seninel / A Health Blog - Flickr

Ever since we were just little kids, people have told us to look forward to old age.

Despite all of the worrying about our joints, our bodies, and our brains, our parents and teachers assured us that we'd be wise beyond our years in the twilight of our life.

As George Burns once said, "By the time you're 80 years old you've learned everything. You only have to remember it."

George Burns
Allan Warren - Wikimedia

But do we really get better with age, or are we just kidding ourselves? Scientists who set out to answer that question once and for all have good news.

Young Minds Versus Age And Experience

For years, researchers have insisted that our brains actually weaken and lose steam as we age.

The belief was that any benefits we gained from experience didn't make up for the memory problems and slower thinking speed that come with old age.

Jorge Royan - Wikimedia

But a team from the University of Texas set out to test aging brains in a real world situation, and found a much different result.

When teens and twenty-somethings went up against seniors from age 60 to 82 in a financial planning test, the grey haired group scored very well.

While younger people were better at choices affecting them right now, older people made plans for the future that paid off in the long run.


It sounds like an even trade-off, but consider this: the older group might have scored better with a calculator to help them, but there's no substitute for age and experience.

Why Do We Get Better With Age?

In a surprising twist, older people might have outscored the younger generation because of their fading brains.


Brain scans reveal that the young and old actually use different parts of their mind to solve problems:

Younger people think more with their ventral striatum, which is better at making quick decisions based on immediate rewards.

As we get older, our brain starts to rely on other areas like the prefrontal cortices, which are a little more rational.


Sadly, the damage caused by aging that sharpens an older person's critical thinking skills is the same kind that causes memory conditions like dementia and Alzheimer's.

But doctors say there are proven ways to fight back against these conditions, including regular exercise and brain training.

What Makes Wisdom?

One of the tricky things about wisdom is that it's tough to actually put your finger on it.

While you can break wisdom down into parts like intelligence, understanding, and problem solving, experience definitely plays a part too.


Maybe that's why so many people we consider wise are elderly.

A study on wisdom found that the young and old can both identify wisdom, but only the second group can connect their wisdom to the big picture of their life story.

Another study that asked people to nominate a wise person - living or dead - and found the average age for the top picks was in the late 50s.

Wikimedia / Foreign Commonwealth Office - Flickr

Celebrities including Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth, and Ann Landers were some of the most selected, along with ancient sages like Confucius and Socrates (who both worked well into their old age).

But another study that used MRIs to scan the brain found what could be the surprising source of wisdom: positivity.

The Wisdom Of Staying Optimistic

Researchers at the University of Alberta scanned the brains of test subjects while showing them upsetting pictures.

Comparing a group of old and young participants, the study found the older people had a more positive view of the pictures.


But they were also thinking about the photos differently: brain scans of the older group showed the parts of their brains responsible for emotion and control of emotion were working together well.

It would be easy to say that old people are just cheery about everything, but staying positive in the face of bad news is an important skill.

Research has proven that staying positive helps you live longer, because it wards off diseases like type two diabetes and mental illnesses like depression.

Dennis van Zuijlekom - Flickr

While some people are naturally happier than others, you can learn to cultivate positivity by counting your blessings, spending time with friends, and smiling more.

From your experience, do you believe that age and wisdom go hand in hand?

Looking for wisdom? The Dalai Lama's message about negative energy is something we all need to hear.

And for more surprising news, discover the reason why the Amish age more slowly than we do.

[H/T: Telegraph, How Stuff Works, The Daily Mail]