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7 Benefits of Aging

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Aging has a bad rap. A recent Forbes Health poll reveals that the 47% of U.S. adults who fear aging are most concerned about declining health, losing loved ones, money, giving up their independence, and loneliness, in that order. That same poll, though, reveals that as Americans get older, they become less afraid of aging. Perhaps they realize that it’s not all doom and gloom after all. In fact, many documented benefits of aging can give the 18- to 25-year-olds who most fear aging something to look forward to in their golden years.

Here are seven things that get better with age.

1. You Get Happier

By the time they reach retirement age, many people are more content and just plain happier. “Research indicates that compared to younger individuals, older adults tend to report greater life satisfaction and happiness. Although happiness levels sometimes dip in middle age, studies do show happiness levels increase in later life,” says Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of “Aging Joyfully: A Woman’s Guide to Optimal Health, Relationships, and Fulfillment for Her 50s and Beyond.”

Researchers theorize that as we continue to age, we get better at adapting emotionally to what’s thrown our way. In addition, says Carrie Ditzel, a clinical geropsychologist with Baker Street Behavioral Health, “Socioemotional selectivity theory, a lifespan theory based on motivation, says that as we age, seeing a shorter time ahead of us motivates us to appreciate things and people more.” She notes that this causes people to be more selective about how they spend their time, seeking out what makes them happy and avoiding what doesn’t.

2. Wisdom Grows

Turns out the Oscar Wilde adage, “With age comes wisdom,” is true. “Wisdom is more than simply gaining new experiences and knowing more things. Wisdom changes throughout life, allowing us to gain perspective and ultimately find peace with what may be in our own life,” says Ditzel.

Noting that the “wise elder” archetype is based in fact, Manly adds, “The older adult’s ability to make wise decisions based on having accrued more knowledge and lived experiences is not to be underestimated.”

3. Stress Lessens

As people reach retirement age, some things that were important earlier in life—finding the right partner or achieving career goals, for example–lose importance. That leads to less angst. “We have stopped banging our heads over what we can’t control and have become content with whatever we have managed to attain,” says John Tholen, a retired cognitive psychologist and author of “Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind.”

But it’s not just about how we “age out” of certain stressors. Older people also have many learned lessons to draw from when encountering what might be a classic anxiety-inducing situation, points out Jerry Kiesling, a therapist who specializes in working with older adults. “For example, if I receive an IRS letter and I have received them before, I know the steps I need to take, so I am not so worried by the letter,” he notes.

4. Learning Improves

There’s good news for lifelong learners: learning doesn’t have to stop simply because you’ve sprouted a few gray hairs. “Research shows that older adults often experience an improvement in brain functions related to attending to new information and focusing on the salient elements of a situation,” says Manly.

In fact, Ilana J. Bennett, principal investigator at the University of California, Riverside’s, Laboratory of Aging and Neurocognitive Imaging and an assistant psychology professor, notes that older adults can “attain similar levels of proficiency with enough practice” when compared to younger adults learning new skills.

5. Memory Strengthens

Counter to what many think, older adults have better semantic memory than their younger counterparts. “Semantic memory,” explains Bennett, refers to general knowledge about facts, the meaning of words, and knowing how to do things.

“This is thought to be due to semantic memories being stored in distributed neural networks throughout the brain, making them less vulnerable to loss,” says Bennett.

6. Adaptability Increases

Research shows that older adults are often more adaptable than younger people, which might help them better adjust to some of the changes that come with aging. At the same time, though, adaptability doesn’t necessarily make them happier.

“In our studies at the University of California, Riverside, we have seen that older adults who learn many new skills may be more adaptable when things change, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they may not necessarily be happier in the short term compared with other older adults who do not learn many new skills. We have observed a tension between prioritizing learning new skills, which can be inherently frustrating in the short term, and prioritizing happy experiences,” says Rachel Wu, associate professor of psychology at the university.

7. Relationships Deepen

While our social circles sometimes get smaller in retirement as friends move away, Ditzel points out that the social interactions older adults do have are more satisfying than those of their younger counterparts. “Older adults feel a greater sense of support and satisfaction with those they have close ties to,” she says.

This isn’t to say that aging doesn’t bring challenges. But the benefits of aging can prepare us to cope with issues better than we might have when we were younger.

“Sure, death is just around the corner, but what else is new? In the meantime, we can enjoy our grandkids, or at least the freedom to spend most of our time in the pursuit of comfort,” says Tholen.

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