08.03.11

Life Gets Better at 50

Obama’s hitting the big 5-0 today—and while his basketball game may suffer with time, his job performance doesn’t have to, say researchers. Casey Schwartz on other surprising new findings about aging.

Happy birthday, Mr. President. You’re 50. So what now?

As the baby boomers grow older, research on aging—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is growing too, and revealing some surprising findings.

The bad news first, since we all know it already. With age comes decay. Things—many things—begin to slide. The metabolism slows; muscles degrade; fat accumulates and shifts into all the places where it is most unwelcome.

Then there’s the wear and tear.

“We tend to accumulate injuries we might have had when we were young, especially the baby-boom generation that tended to be very physically active and damaged a lot of body parts, as I have done myself, over the years,” says Art Kramer, who studies aging and exercise at the Beckman Institute. “We certainly don’t move as quickly.”

One can’t help but think of certain vivid Obama iconography. There he is on the basketball court, poised to spring for the shot; or twisting his back on the golf course; or bounding up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, gleeful at the chance to greet young travelers. Dear Mr. President: Caution, please!

The slowing down that occurs with age applies both to our physical and mental capabilities, says Kramer. Yet when it comes to the latter, Kramer and others draw a crucial—and comforting—distinction between “fluid” and “crystallized” intelligence.

Fluid intelligence is all about raw processing speed: the agility with which you are able to solve new and unfamiliar problems. Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, flows from experience; it’s hard and fast knowledge, garnered over years.

It’s “your ability to solve problems based on knowledge of the world that you’ve acquired over time,” says Neil Charness, a psychology professor at Florida State University.

Happily, this second form of intelligence—the crystallized kind—stays ... well ... crystallized as the brain gets older. It weathers the storm. In fact, it thrives.

As Charness points out, “If you look at measures of knowledge like information tasks, vocabulary tasks, then those abilities seem to rise at least into the 50s and hold maybe even to the 60s and 70s, and probably start to decline after that.”

Furthermore, Charness says, “one of the things that people are under the misapprehension of is that as you get older, job performance declines. But lots and lots of meta analyses ... show that there’s virtually no relationship between age and job productivity.”

From industry to industry, there’s a lot of variability in the age at which people tend to hit their prime. In mathematics, for instance, great accomplishment comes on the earlier side—it's likely that the 30s are the most potent decade—but neuroscientists, as David Eagleman pointed out in a recent issue of The New Yorker, tend to take years before they make their greatest breakthroughs. They must first get a true “feel” for how the brain works.

The story of aging becomes more complicated as researchers continue to poke and prod at it. Laura Carstensen, a psychologist at Stanford, is well known for her work on the changes that naturally occur in the priorities people set for themselves.

She even has a name for this phenomenon: the socio-emotional selectivity theory.

“There’s a general set of goals that guide human behavior throughout life,” she says. “We have goals about mating, about attachment, about gaining information, and also about regulating our emotions. And when time horizons are vast and nebulous, as they typically are in youth, people prioritize those goals in different ways than when time horizons are short.”

“If you look at measures of knowledge like information tasks, vocabulary tasks, then those abilities seem to rise at least into the 50s and hold maybe even to the 60s and 70s.”

Carstensen believes, and has demonstrated in her research, that when people have a sense that a lot of time lies ahead of them, they are constantly, chronically focused on gaining information, gaining insights, gathering up an enriched supply of knowledge that will help them in their future.

On the other hand, she says, as people become more viscerally aware of the constraints of time, goals that had seemed salient—future-oriented goals—are no longer so compelling. Instead, what people tend to care about is “meaning in life, emotion, emotional significance,” she says. “In some ways, they’re relieved of the burden of a future.”

It’s a startling idea in some ways, Carstensen’s concept of being “relieved of the burden of a future.” But it’s a concept that is already old news to many.

“It turns out that when you’re focused on the here and now, just as Buddhism would say, when you’re focused on the present, it’s really good for mental health,” she says.

As we age, emotions tend to be more positive, more deeply experienced, and more easily regulated. In many older adults, Carstensen has shown, there develops a natural bias toward aspects of life that are emotionally gratifying—as well as a natural disregard for those things that would have, at a younger age, caused anxiety or distress. Carstensen has demonstrated this phenomenon using several experimental methods, from brain imaging to clinical interviews. But the trend stays the same.

The research as it exists already has much to say that should give us hope about our own futures. But there’s more.

There are researchers like Judith Campisi at the Buck Institute, who questions why it is we have to get worse as we get old—and what can be done about it.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion between aging, time, and death. And they’re very distinct,” she says. “Time passes, you accumulate experience, and you can become more creative and wiser—and that’s terrific. But that’s not aging. Aging is a process that turns an organism that’s fit into an organism that’s less fit. And I don’t see anything that’s good about that.”

But whereas the old thinking had it that aging was “inexorable—like rusting,” says Campisi, biologists have since pinpointed specific genes that set the pace of aging and differ from person to person. Campisi argues that with the identification of these specific pathways, it’s at least theoretically possible to intervene in the process of human aging.

So, with all of this in mind, what are you to think on your 50th birthday?

Cliché tells us that it’s time to buy a Porsche and have a breakdown. But research tells us that this might be the most appropriate moment for optimism—a time when one can look forward to an enriched store of knowledge as well as feelings of positivity and calm. And if one has two beloved daughters singing “Happy Birthday”? Life at 50 doesn’t look so bad.