Aging: The Surprises of Getting Older

Brain Changes for Aging Adults

Our brains change as we age.

There's a bit of good news and a bit of bad news for aging adults when it comes to mental work. Let's start with the bad. After your 30s, your ability to process information usually declines. So does your capacity to remember things. Maybe there's some truth to the old saying that “the first thing to go is your memory.” Your brain also becomes more “set” as you age, particularly after age 70, making it harder to produce novel ideas. If all of this seems depressing, keep in mind that for a healthy adult, these changes are small on average.

There is an upside to aging, however, when it comes to your brain. Older people get better and better at a variety of tasks that psychologists lump into a category called crystallized intelligence. Crystallized intelligence refers to the accumulation of knowledge, skills, and abilities that have been practiced again and again. Your vocabulary resists decline, and continues to improve at least through middle age. Other well-practiced skills such as arithmetic improve through middle age as well, and are also unlikely to decline as you grow older.

Making Friends

We tend to become more conscientious and agreeable as we age.

Psychologists once assumed that after a certain age, our personalities are more or less fixed in place. But more recent research is turning that old idea on its head, showing that people tend to become more conscientious and agreeable over time.

The study, which observed data from over 130,000 adults ages 21-60, found that beginning in your 30s, you are likely to become more conscientious as you age. Conscientiousness in this case is associated with becoming more disciplined and organized. Similarly, people tend to become more agreeable—that is, more generous, warm, and helpful—as they enter their twilight years.

Sex Gets Better

Aging men and women are more and more sexually satisfied.

Think the flames of desire dampen as you age? Studies show the opposite is true. As people's attitudes toward sex have relaxed over the course of the last century, reports of sexual satisfaction among seniors have increased. Back in the 1970s, only four 70-year-old women out of 10 said they had high sexual satisfaction, and only 58% of men at age 70. More recently six women in 10 and 7 men in 10 say they have highly satisfying sex lives at 70.

That's true for adults in their 80s as well, with half reporting sexual satisfaction “always” or “almost always.” Why the change? Partly it's that more permissive attitudes contribute more freedom and sexual confidence. But also older people are living more comfortably thanks to advances in modern medicine. Erectile dysfunction has medical cures, and seniors are more likely than ever to seek medical treatment for all the aches and pains of daily life.

Taste Changes

Medicine, illness and other causes can make your tastes change in later life.

The way you taste your food can change as you age. Why? It could be medications. Another culprit is illness. Respiratory diseases, allergies, and gum disease can affect your sense of taste and that other sense so crucial to the way food tastes—smell. So as the way food tastes changes for you, you may find yourself changing your diet accordingly.

This can be good news if you choose to flavor your food with more herbs and spices. But it could also be a problem if you find yourself reaching for the salt shaker time after time. High sodium has been linked with a greater risk of cardiovascular problems, so finding healthier ways to intensify the flavors you enjoy could improve your health.

Hair Pops Up in New Places

Men and women grow hair in different places later in life.

Aging means finding hairs in new places around your body. This happens to both men and women, but it impacts both genders differently. This is because the changes are largely affected by hormones.

For men, nose and ear hair start to become more sensitive to testosterone. These follicles are already there, but testosterone causes these hairs to become longer and more coarse. So while they may have been more or less invisible before, at a certain age you will likely find them standing out in ways they never had before. To the disappointment of many men, the same isn't true of the hair on the scalp, which tend to get smaller and grow less frequently, which explains male pattern baldness.

Hormonal changes in women can sometimes lead to a growth in facial hair. As women near menopause, their bodies produce less estrogen. That means testosterone holds greater sway. And it's this new balance of hormones that can cause the hair on your face to grow coarser and darker.

Sleep Changes and Aging

Older adults often have difficulty sleeping.

If you never thought of yourself as a morning person, that could change as you grow older. Older adults typically find their sleep habits change in several ways, and one of these is a tendency to rise earlier.

As you age, you may sleep the same number of hours, or see that time slightly decrease. But you may also spend more time in bed, as seniors tend to have more trouble falling asleep and may wake up more often in the middle of the night—three to four times a night on average. You also dream less as you age, as less of your sleep time is devoted to REM sleep. The combination of these factors could make you feel like you've had less sleep, even if your total sleep time hasn't changed.

When It's Unhealthy

Earlier we covered the normal sleep changes of aging. But not all sleep changes are healthy or normal. Chronic pain can intensify the tendency to sleep lighter and wake up more frequently. Medications can keep you up at night, too. Problems can also come from depression (which is more common in seniors), frequent urination, and various diseases such as heart failure. As older people tend to be less active, this can affect sleep too—exercise helps when it comes to getting a full night's sleep.

What Seniors Can Do About Sleep Problems

Sleep problems are frustrating at any age, but even if you're an older adult there are ways to relieve many of these problems. Here are some tips:

  • Do not nap.
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule, and avoid deviations.
  • When you find you can't sleep, get out of bed and find a quiet activity to keep you occupied until you feel more tired. Reserve bedtime for sleep and sex.
  • Cut caffeine and other stimulants from your afternoons.
  • Don't eat too big a meal before bed, which can make it harder to sleep.
  • Get some exercise earlier in the day. Many senior-friendly exercises are available. If you're not sure how to put together a workout routine, discuss the matter with your doctor.
  • Many people who are frustrated by sleep problems will turn to sleeping pills. While these can occasionally offer some of the rest you need, avoid relying on them. Sleeping pills can be habit-forming, and they can make sleep problems worse if they aren't used properly.

    If you feel you need sleeping pills, discuss them with a doctor who can guide you to pills that are safer, and give you tips on the proper way to take them. Don't drink alcohol while taking sleeping pills, because alcohol makes the negative side effects of all sleeping pills worse.

Seniors and Migraines

Some seniors experience fewer migraines as they age.

Do you suffer from migraines? These distracting and typically painful headaches can ruin a good day. But there's a bright spot for migraine-sufferers after their 60s—you may be one of the lucky ones who experiences fewer headaches with age.

One study found that for seniors, migraines are less frequent, less intense, and less likely to induce nausea and vomiting. For some, they seem to disappear completely. It's possible that the same number of seniors still get migraines technically, but because those headaches are milder, they get diagnosed as tension headaches. While many migraine symptoms become less likely, some symptoms become more common as you age, such as dry mouth, paleness, and loss of appetite.

For Long Life, Love What You Do

The satisfaction of work can lead to happiness as you age.

Many think a carefree, easy-going attitude will help sustain them to a ripe, old age. But a major survey studied 1,500 people, throughout their lives, to learn what leads to a healthier, longer life. Some of the results were surprising. For instance, having a relaxed attitude toward work was associated with an earlier grave, while those who were most dedicated to their jobs lived longer.

The study, which began in 1921, had other surprises as well. Researchers observed that optimistic children more prone to joking lived shorter lives than their more serious, but persistent, peers. It also found that married men lived much longer on average than divorced men, but divorced women lived about as long as their married counterparts. And while veterans of combat lived shorter lives on average, this seemed to be due to unhealthy patterns they developed later, but not due to the psychological trauma of war itself.

Falling and Fear Itself

Fear of falling can make falls worse.

Falls are scary things. More than a quarter of all Americans over age 65 fall each year, and each fall has roughly a one-in-five chance of causing serious injury. These include head injuries and broken bones.

It's easy to become scared of falling, whether you've ever experienced a bad fall or not. But fear of falling actually makes people more vulnerable to falls. Why? It makes sense when you stop to think about it: A person who is afraid of falling is likely to be more timid and cautious about physical activity. Because fear of falling can limit your physical activity, it can also make you weaker. And weaker people are more prone to fall.

In other words, it's sensible to be cautious about falls, but letting a fear of falls slow you down has consequences, too. Here are some fear-free ways to reduce your risk:

  • Visit your eye doctor. Regular eye exams ensure you're getting the right eyeglass prescription, which can help keep you more stable while walking. If you have bifocals, you might want to ask for a pair of glasses to use strictly for seeing at a distance.
  • Stay active. Maintain an exercise routine that focuses on leg strength and balance. These two factors can help you stay steady on the ground. One example of such an exercise is Tai Chi.
  • Talk to your doctor. Ask how much of a risk falling poses to you. Find out if any of your medications contribute to sleepiness or dizziness. Make sure you're getting the right amount of vitamin D—both too little and too much vitamin D have been linked to a higher risk of falling.
  • Make your home safer from falls. Keep your floors free of clutter. Make sure all stairs have handrails on both sides. Add more or brighter lights inside your home to make sure you can see clearly as you move around. Have grab bars installed in the bathroom for both the tub and toilet.

Self Confidence

Self-confidence tends to increase up to the point of retirement.

Throughout our lives our self-confidence continues to increase until we hit retirement age. At this point many see a swift, sharp drop in confidence. Experts debate the reasons for this. Some say it's because retirement threatens the stability of our working life. Others suggest that by leaving the workforce, retired seniors may feel that they aren't contributing to family and society as they once did.

Not everyone is affected by retirement in the same way. The study these findings are based on found that wealth and good health seem to protect against the self-confidence dip in retirement. When people enjoy relationships that are supportive and satisfying, this also leads to better self-esteem than average over time. But even people in good relationships experience a similar dip after retirement.

Living With Less Stress

Older generations live with less stress.

Stress poses serious consequences, whether it's from work (or a lack of work), family pressures, bad habits, or nearly anything else. Higher levels of stress make your body less capable of fighting off illness, and it's been connected with heart disease and other health problems that could lead to a shorter, less healthy life. That being the case, seniors have cause for celebration when it comes to stress: a major stress survey in America keeps showing that older generations live with less stress than younger people.

While a few more birthdays may put us at greater ease in life, those of us who do have intense or chronic stress may have fewer birthdays to look forward to. Studies have shown that high levels of stress can age your body's cells prematurely, and that can lead to an earlier death.

Age and Height

Almost everyone shrinks over time, and most don't realize it.

Do you know how tall you are? Are you sure? Researchers asked more than 8,500 women over 60 their height, and then measured. On average the women overestimated their height by an inch, and had become two inches shorter than their highest recorded height.

Almost everyone shrinks as they age. The reason has to do with your spine. The cushion surrounding your spine dehydrates as you age. The spine can also curve or collapse, which can lead to stooping, and even the arches of your feet may flatten, causing a shorter stature. Every decade after age 40, the average person loses ½ an inch in height. This speeds up after age 70.

There are ways to slow this process down, though. Eating a healthier diet helps. Specifically, eating a diet filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and not too much healthy fat has been associated with less shrinking as you age. Avoiding tobacco and limiting alcohol helps, too, as does getting plenty of exercise on a regular basis.

More Politically Involved

People tend to get more active politically in later life.

Are you engaged in politics? Once you hit age 60, chances are you will be. Older Americans are far likelier than younger people to show up to the polls. That can have a big impact on political decisions affecting aging and retirement, such as Medicare funding, Social Security, and health funding.

Happiness and Aging

Older people report being happier than young people.

Think getting older is all doom and gloom? Nonsense! Older people report being happier than the young. And that's true despite any age-related disabilities or other health concerns. What's more, that may be more and more true every year, as rates of depression among the elderly have declined for about a decade.

This is based on a survey of about 1,500 people ages 21 to 99. It suggests as we get older, we may indeed become wiser. Mental health seems to improve as you continue to meet the many demands and surprises life throws your way. So if you are one of the many people who fear the advancement of time, cheer up—life gets better with age.

Fewer Colds

Your immunity to common colds is stronger as you age.

If you hate sniffling, sneezing, and coughing, pay attention. Older people are better protected against colds than the young. Your body remembers every cold virus you ever had to fight off—and there are more than 200 out there. When you encounter the same virus again, your body's infection fighters—known as T cells—are primed and ready to stop a familiar infection before it starts.

Studies show this immunity superpower is strongest from your 40s to your early 70s. However after a certain point your body's immune system has a harder time keeping up, and you may become more susceptible to colds once again. That can be tough, because these colds tend to hang on longer and wreak more havoc as you age.

Less Sensitive Teeth

Your sensitivity to cold food could ease over time.

If you're someone who winces at the thought of ice water, you may be delighted to learn that as you age, your teeth become less sensitive. The reason for this involves dentin, the hard, inner tissue of teeth. When you're young, you have less dentin built up in your teeth with more microscopic cracks. We've known about this since the 1930s, but are only beginning to understand why teeth age the way they do. It seems the buildup of dentin, which fills in the tiny cracks and helps prevent tooth pain, does come with a side effect. It results in older teeth being more vulnerable to cracking.

Making Use of Useless Information

In certain ways your memory actually improves over time.

Older adults have a surprising superpower when it comes to memory, and it seems to relate to their ability to focus their attention—or rather, their inability to do so. Studies have found that older people are more easily distracted by irrelevant information. While this may cause some problems with mental tasks, there's an upside.

Because older adults are less likely to filter out information that seems useless at first glance, they retain that information more easily than younger adults. It means older adults remember more associations between things than younger folks. And that has consequences that can improve decision-making.

Less Sweating

If you hate to sweat, just wait until you get older.

Older people sweat less. That's because sweat glands shrink as you age, and they become less sensitive as well. This is particularly true for women, who sweat less than men to begin with. Though it's nice to stay dry, there are a couple of health implications to consider along with this. For one, the sweat ducts play an important role in delivering fresh cells to the skin to repair wounds, and this effect is hampered as you age. For another, sweating keeps us cool, so older people should be especially vigilant against heat exhaustion.

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REFERENCES:

  • The American Institute of Stress: “Seniors.”
  • American Psychological Association: “2015 Stress in America Report Highlights,” “Personality changes for the better with age,” “Self-esteem declines sharply among older adults while middle-aged are most confident.”
  • BBC: “The benefits of getting older.”
  • CDC: “Important facts about falls.”
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  • ElectionProject.org: “Voter turnout demographics.”
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  • Indiana University Health: “Excess facial hair in women: A cosmetic problem or something more?”
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  • Time: “Old people are happier than people in their 20s.”
  • UC Berkeley Wellness: “Why sex gets better with age,” "Why you shrink as you age."
  • UC San Diego: “Aging casefully: 9 things that happen to your body (some aren’t so bad!)”
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