Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Old Age and Treachery

How do older workers outperform their younger and stronger colleagues?

My middle-aged husband was at the gym today, working out on a heavy bag.  He was doing 'finger pushups'—a somewhat silly looking exercise where you systematically push the punching bag away from you with a quick flick on the fingers and just the right shift of weight from the hips.  

A student weightlifter walked by a few times, smirked and said, "why don't you just hit the f***ing thing, old man?"

So he did.  Squared his fist, pivoted from the hip. lined up his body, let loose a good 5" punch that slammed the bag vertically against the wall.  Caught it casually and did another set of fingertip pushups.

"Um, okay", said the student.  And walked away.   

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I found this little vignette (shared with me during what my husband calls his 'confessions') illustrative of the kinds of things that people gain with age.  

In this case, experience.  My husband has been studying martial arts for just about 40 years.  He is not as strong, as fast, or as thin as he used to be.  But he knows a LOT about how to use his body effectively to accomplish well practiced tasks in the martial arts in general and tai chi in particular. His tai chi instructor, who is 87, frail, and has studied for over 70 years, can take my husband (or anyone else in the studio) down in an eye blink.   

As people age, their physical reflexes slow—this is one of the best documented phenomena in psychology.  You'd think that would mean that their ability to perform tasks that rely on speed—like punching a bag—would degrade as well. But they don't.  Instead, older people tend to improve at many tasks, maintaining and even improving skills well after the physical underpinnings of these tasks have begun to decline.

Why?  Older people know more and they use their knowledge effectively.

In a classic study, Salthouse compared the typing abilities of older and younger secretaries.  Older secretaries typed faster and more accurately, despite being tested with consistently slower reaction times than their younger peers.  They did so by using a more sophisticated cognitive strategy—reading ahead further—so that they kept more information in their head and gave their fingers longer to react.  

Baltes and others distinguish between 'pragmatics'—strategies used—and 'mechanics'—the physical infrastructure that controls the ability to do the task.  Younger people typically have stronger and more intact mechanical systems, but lack the more sophisticated pragmatics painstakingly acquired through expert practice.  At any given level of expertise, people with better 'mechanics' will outperform people with lesser mechanics.  But typically, older people can compensate with better pragmatics.

Paul Baltes, former director of the Max Planck Institute on the Study of Lifespan Psychology, wrote about this normative shift with age as 'wisdom'.  Wisdom is defined as expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life (Baltes & Staudinger, 2000).  Often thought of as the hallmark of healthy aging, wisdom reflects the acquired result of effortful practice.

Wisdom does not, unfortunately, compensate for the losses of aging.  In writing about how older experts maintain performance in the face of normal aging, Baltes focused on three strategies: selection, optimization, and compensation.

He used the great pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, as an exemplar.

Selection:  Rubinstein maintained high standards of performance in his later years by performing fewer pieces and really focusing solely on those works.  You often see this is older people: they do a few things well, but let other things slide.  Top performance is only maintained in the chosen areas.  As people get older, they become specialists.

Optimization: Rubinstein used all of his genius—his acquired pragmatics—to practice this reduced repertoire effortfully.  This increased effortful practice allowed high levels of performance, but at the cost of a narrower range.

Compensation:  And then there's compensation.  As an older man, Rubinstein, despite practice, could not play as quickly and spectacularly as he could as a brilliant young student.  But he could make it SOUND as if he could.  How?  He slowed down on the slow parts and that made the fast parts sound faster.  Just as older typists read further ahead to compensate for their lagging reaction time.  Or my husband uses careful alignment of his joints, excellent form, and weight to compensate for slower reflexes and reduced muscle mass.  You use what you do have to make up for what you don't.

In healthy aging, what you can do will, for a long time, make up for what you can't.  It's a matter of planful cognition.  Or, in a word, treachery.  

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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