If you’re alive today, there’s a good chance you’ve come to believe in a series of myths about the second half of your life.
Start with the whopper: the traditional view of aging—or what I call “the long slow rot theory.” This is the idea that all of our mental and physical skills decline over time and there’s nothing we can do to stop the slide.
This myth originates with psychologist Sigmund Freud. In 1907, a few months before his fiftieth birthday—and terrified of growing older—Freud wrote in his book, On Psychotherapy: “About the age of fifty, the elasticity of the mental processes upon which treatment depends, is, as a rule lacking. Old people are no longer educable.”[time-brightcove not-tgx=”true”]>[video id=nBzBn5XK autostart="viewable"]
Freud believed that anyone over fifty was so beyond their sell-by-date that even therapy was impossible. This is the origin of the long slow rot theory. It’s also why we believe that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. You want proof? For starters, Freud wrote a number of his most important books in his fifties and sixties.
Like many myths, Freud’s statement contains a sliver of truth and a slather of blather. While our mental and physical skills decline over time, it turns out that most (and possibly all) of them are use-it-or-lose-it skills. This means, if we never stop using these skills, we get to hang onto them— and even advance them—far later in life than anyone thought possible.
Take VO2 Max, which measures the upper-range of our aerobic capacity. If you run stairs, it’s your VO2 Max that determines for how long.
VO2 Max starts to sag in our twenties and falls off a cliff after fifty. For years scientists believed there was nothing we could do about this situation. But then marathoners and triathletes and ultra-runners—in their sixties, seventies and eighties—began to post times that shouldn’t have been possible. So researchers decided to take a closer look at elite octogenarian athletes.
They discovered that proper training erased fifty years of decline. The VO2 Max of athletic eighty-year-olds was equal to that of healthy thirty-five year-olds. More critically, many of our physical skills work the same way.
Strength is another example. Muscle fibers begin to decline in number once we reach the age of fifty, but—if properly trained—those lost muscle fibers are buffered by the overdevelopment of the remaining fibers or, as University of Michigan physiologist John Faulkner wrote in a 2008 meta-analysis of the issue: “Even with major losses in physical capacity and muscle mass, the performance of elite and masters athletes is remarkable.”
The same holds true for our cognitive skills. Consider “cognitive control,” which is a catch-all term for things like working memory, task switching, multitasking and inhibitory control—or our ability to resist distraction. A great many of the mental deficits that accompany aging result from a decline in cognitive control. Yet, once again, this decline is optional, or as neuroscientists Theodore Zanto and Adam Gazzaley explained in a recent review article: “Fortunately, the brain remains plastic throughout the lifespan, and many age-related declines in cognitive control may be reversed though physical and cognitive training.”
When it comes to how the brain changes over time, the news isn’t all bad. In fact, research now shows that our later years are a new stage of adult development, where three profound and positive changes take place in the brain.
First, certain genes activate only by experience, which means the brain remodels itself over time, adding depth and wisdom to our personalities.
Second, the brain learns to recruit regions underutilized in our earlier years, and this can help compensate for the cognitive decline that comes with age. Put differently, when we’re younger, one hemisphere of the brain might be entirely responsible for a particular type of information processing, but as we age, the brain recruits areas in the other hemisphere, which is a kind of neural redundancy that can offset age-related decline.
Third, the brain’s information processing capacities reach their greatest density and height between ages sixty and eighty, allowing the two hemispheres of the brain to work together like never before.
These neurobiological changes unlock three types of thinking that are mostly inaccessible before our fifties.Relativistic Thinking: We learn to better synthesize disparate views. We learn that there are few absolute truths, mostly relative truths, and that black-and-white thinking is a folly of youth.Non-Dualistic Thinking: We learn to consider opposing views without judgment. We learn to see both sides of the same coin. We learn empathy.Systematic Thinking: We learn to think big picture. We learn how to see the forest through the trees. We learn to think divergently.
As we onboard these new thinking styles, they have an even greater impact, unlocking whole new levels of intelligence, creativity, empathy and wisdom—which are all skills essential for thriving today.
All of this work has changed the conversation around aging and performance. It’s no longer a question of what we can do in spite of our age. Now, it’s about what we can do because of our age. As pioneering geriatric psychologist Gene Cohen explained in The Mature Mind, his classic book on the subject: “Dozens of new [neurological] findings are overturning the notion that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. It turns out that not only can old dogs learn well, they are actually better at many types of intellectual tasks than young dogs.”
The final myth worth exploding is the idea that aging is simply a physical process. As Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer once said: “Aging is as much a mental event as a physical process.”
One of the wildest examples of this emerged from the twenty years of data produced by the Ohio Longitudinal Study on Aging and Retirement. When scientists examined the data to determine the relationship between mindset, health and longevity, they found something staggering.
In this study, a positive mindset toward aging—meaning, “I’m excited about the possibilities in the second half of my life, and I believe my best days are ahead of me”—translated into an extra eight years of healthy longevity. Nor is this just a one-off result. This finding shows up again and again, and is now one of the most well-established facts in the field.
The implications? Changing your mindset toward aging has as much impact on longevity as quitting smoking, and more impact than losing weight, even if you’re obese.
And this matters—a lot.
If you treat people in their later years—including yourself—as if they’re old, slow and decrepit, this has a direct negative impact on their mental and physical well-being. Yale University psychologist Becca Levy discovered that people subjected to negative stereotypes around aging in their twenties, thirties and forties—by the time they reach their sixties—exhibited a thirty percent greater decline in memory than controls.
All of this is to say, believing in these myths about aging? Turns out, that actually ages us faster.