The Hidden Upsides of Growing Older

Why can't we see them?

Posted Dec 17, 2019

Image by Thomas Breher from Pixabay
Source: Image by Thomas Breher from Pixabay

It can be all too easy to focus on ways that we don’t feel as mentally agile as we did in our youth. Yet, not all is lost with advancing age. We often take for granted the advantages that coincide with years of experience when handling complex information or rebounding from setbacks. We'd like to focus here on the aspects of mental function that stay strong or even become better with age. We refer to these enhanced mental functions as “hidden upsides,” because we often don’t notice the many ways that our years of life have led to improved mental abilities.

Why is it hard to recognize these upsides? First, negative stereotypes about aging and cognitive ability abound in Western culture. Their prevalence makes it easier to notice moments consistent with the stereotype and harder to notice the moments in which older adults flourish (Dionigi, 2015). For example, while adults of all ages misplace their keys and phones, older adults and their family members may be more likely to focus on these memory lapses and to view them as diagnostic of declining memory.

Second, having a sense of our own mental agility – metacognition – is, in-and-of-itself, a cognitive feat. We’ve known for a long time that most people, regardless of age, aren’t particularly good at using metacognition to assess their own abilities. For instance, Henmon (1911) concluded from his research that “confidence was not a reliable index of accuracy.” In other words, people aren’t very good at knowing how well they’re doing on some task. Although sometimes this metacognitive inaccuracy can lead us to be overconfident – we all know someone who professes to be a good driver, while their passengers shake their heads in protest– it can also leave us feeling incompetent even after a good performance.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay
Source: Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Third, as we begin to lose trust in our mental acuity, we place increased reliance on external aides. We shop while vigilantly checking items from a list, we check our calendar frequently, and we use our phones to store our friends’ numbers. By doing so, we not only rob ourselves of important opportunities to use our minds, we also prevent ourselves from observing small mental triumphs (Touran, 2015). Sometimes, it is the avoidance of testing our abilities that prevents us from recognizing the upsides to cognitive aging.

Hopefully you now have a better sense as to why there can be “hidden upsides,” or abilities that – often unbeknownst to us – are staying strong and improving even as our hair is graying. In future posts, we will expand on them by describing specific upsides and exploring the types of situations in which the older adult mind surpasses its younger adult counterpart.

References

Dionigi, R. A. (2015). Stereotypes of aging: Their effects on the health of older adults. Journal of Geriatrics,  vol. 2015, Article ID 954027, 9 pages, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/954027

Henmon V. (1911). The relation of the time of a judgment to its accuracy. Psychol. Rev. 18, 186-201. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0074579

Touron, D. R. (2015). Memory Avoidance by Older Adults: When “Old Dogs” Won’t Perform Their “New Tricks.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(3), 170–176. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414563730