Mar 15

The Science of Older and Wiser


MARCH 12, 2014

Since ancient times, the elusive concept of wisdom has figured prominently in philosophical and religious texts. The question remains compelling: What is wisdom, and how does it play out in individual lives? Most psychologists agree that if you define wisdom as maintaining positive well-being and kindness in the face of challenges, it is one of the most important qualities one can possess to age successfully — and to face physical decline and death.

Vivian Clayton, a geriatric neuropsychologist in Orinda, Calif., developed a definition of wisdom in the 1970s, when she was a graduate student, that has served as a foundation for research on the subject ever since. After scouring ancient texts for evocations of wisdom, she found that most people described as wise were decision makers. So she asked a group of law students, law professors and retired judges to name the characteristics of a wise person. Based on an analysis of their answers, she determined that wisdom consists of three key components: cognition, reflection and compassion.
INFLUENTIAL Joan and Erik Erikson devised a theory on human development. Credit The New York Times

Unfortunately, research shows that cognitive functioning slows as people age. But speed isn’t everything. A recent study in Topics in Cognitive Science pointed out that older people have much more information in their brains than younger ones, so retrieving it naturally takes longer. And the quality of the information in the older brain is more nuanced. While younger people were faster in tests of cognitive performance, older people showed “greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences,” the study found.

It stands to reason that the more information people have in their brains, the more they can detect familiar patterns. Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuroscientist in New York and author of “The Wisdom Paradox,” says that “cognitive templates” develop in the older brain based on pattern recognition, and that these can form the basis for wise behavior and decisions.

According to Dr. Clayton, one must take time to gain insights and perspectives from one’s cognitive knowledge to be wise (the reflective dimension). Then one can use those insights to understand and help others (the compassionate dimension).

Working from Dr. Clayton’s framework, Monika Ardelt, an associate sociology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, felt a need to expand on studies of old age because of research showing that satisfaction late in life consists of things like maintaining physical and mental health, volunteering and having positive relationships with others. But this isn’t always possible if the body breaks down, if social roles are diminished and if people suffer major losses. “So these people cannot age successfully? They have to give up?” she recalled asking herself.

Wisdom, she has found, is the ace in the hole that can help even severely impaired people find meaning, contentment and acceptance in later life.
Continue reading the main story

She developed a scale consisting of 39 questions aimed at measuring three dimensions of wisdom. People responding to statements on Professor Ardelt’s wisdom scale — things like “a problem has little attraction for me if I don’t think it has a solution,” or “I can be comfortable with all kinds of people” and “I’m easily irritated by people who argue with me” — were not told they were being measured for wisdom. Respondents later answered questions about hypothetical challenges and crises, and those who showed evidence of high wisdom were also more likely to have better coping skills, Professor Ardelt found. In general, for example, they said they would be more active than passive about dealing with hardship.

An impediment to wisdom is thinking, “I can’t stand who I am now because I’m not who I used to be,” said Isabella S. Bick, a psychotherapist who, at 81, still practices part time out of her home in Sharon, Conn. She has aging clients who are upset by a perceived worsening of their looks, their sexual performance, their physical abilities, their memory. For them, as for herself, an acceptance of aging is necessary for growth, but “it’s not a resigned acceptance; it’s an embracing acceptance,” she said.

“Wise people are able to accept reality as it is, with equanimity,” Professor Ardelt said. Her research shows that when people in nursing homes or with a terminal illness score high on her wisdom scale, they also report a greater sense of well-being. “If things are really bad, it’s good to be wise,” she said.

The Berlin Wisdom Project, a research effort begun in the 1980s that sought to define wisdom by studying ancient and modern texts, called it “an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life.” A co-founder of the project, Ursula M. Staudinger, went on to distinguish between general wisdom, the kind that involves understanding life from an observer’s point of view (for example, as an advice giver), and personal wisdom, which involves deep insight into one’s own life.

True personal wisdom involves five elements, said Professor Staudinger, now a life span psychologist and professor at Columbia University. They are self-insight; the ability to demonstrate personal growth; self-awareness in terms of your historical era and your family history; understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute; and an awareness of life’s ambiguities.

Wisdom in this sense is extremely rare, Professor Staudinger said, and research has shown that it actually declines in the final decades. As a coping strategy, it is better to be positive about life when you are older, she said, and the older people skew that way. They are more likely to look back on their lives and say that the events that occurred were for the best; a wise person would fully acknowledge mistakes and losses, and still try to improve.

True wisdom involves recognizing the negative both within and outside ourselves and trying to learn from it, she said.

13WISDOM-superJumbo-v2Modern definitions of wisdom tend to stress kindness — even if it’s not on the order of Buddha, Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. Wisdom is characterized by a “reduction in self-centeredness,” Professor Ardelt said. Wise people try to understand situations from multiple perspectives, not just their own, and they show tolerance as a result.

“There’s evidence that people who rank high in neuroticism are unlikely to be wise,” said Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California. “They see things in a self-centered and negative way and so they fail to benefit emotionally from experience, even though they may be very intelligent.”

Professor Carstensen does not consider herself a wisdom researcher because “there’s a piece of me that thinks it’s not useful to use a term that’s been around for 1,000 years.” Some researchers are skeptical about testing for such an amorphous trait as wisdom.

But Professor Carstensen does study emotional regulation, and says that is a key component of wisdom.
Continue reading the main story
Sweet oven-baked grits and millet with pecans and maple syrup

Good Irish coffee starts with the cow
Thai peanut sauce marries well with shrimp and pineapple

Continue reading the main story

If you are wise, she said, “You’re not only regulating your emotional state, you’re also attending to another person’s emotional state.” She added: “You’re not focusing so much on what you need and deserve, but on what you can contribute.”

Daniel Goleman, author of “Focus” and “Emotional Intelligence,” said, “One aspect of wisdom is having a very wide horizon which doesn’t center on ourselves,” or even on our group or organization.

He said an important sign of wisdom was “generativity,” a term used by the psychologist Erik Erikson, who developed an influential theory on stages of the human life span. Generativity means giving back without needing anything in return, Dr. Goleman said. The form of giving back could be creative, social, personal or financial, and “the wisest people do that in a way that doesn’t see their lifetime as limiting when this might happen,” he said.

Dr. Goleman interviewed Erikson, along with his wife, Joan, in the late 1980s, when both were in their 80s. Erikson’s theory of human development had initially included eight stages, from infancy to old age. When the Eriksons themselves reached old age, though, they found a need to add a ninth stage of development, one in which wisdom plays a crucial role. “They depict an old age in which one has enough conviction in one’s own completeness to ward off the despair that gradual physical disintegration can too easily bring,” Dr. Goleman wrote in The Times.

In the final years of life, “Even the simple activities of daily living may present difficulty and conflict,” Joan Erikson wrote in an expanded version of her husband’s book, “The Life Cycle Completed.” “No wonder elders become tired and often depressed.” The book adds: “To face down despair with faith and appropriate humility is perhaps the wisest course.”

“One must join in the process of adaptation. With whatever tact and wisdom we can muster, disabilities must be accepted with lightness and humor.”

Whatever the nature of one’s limitations, simplifying one’s life is also a sign of wisdom, Dr. Clayton said, for example, by giving your things away while you are still alive. Some people have trouble with the idea of settling for less — “they’ve gotten so used to the game of acquiring more,” she said.

Settling for less and simplifying is not the same as giving up. In fact, when older people lack challenges, self-absorption and stagnation may take over, the Eriksons said. The key is to set goals that match one’s current capacities.

Continuing education can be an important way to cultivate wisdom in the later years, researchers say, for one thing because it combats isolation. But training in practical skills may be less useful for older people than courses in the humanities that help people make sense of their lives, Professor Ardelt says. She and other researchers recommend classes in guided autobiography, or life review, as a way of strengthening wisdom. In guided autobiography, students write and share their life stories with the help of a trained instructor.

Dr. Clayton says there’s a point in life when a fundamental shift occurs, and people start thinking about how much time they have left rather than how long they have lived. Reflecting on the meaning and structure of their lives, she said, can help people thrive after the balance shifts and there is much less time left than has gone before.

Permanent link to this article:

Feb 20

6 Aging Myths We Need to Stop Believing

(This article previously appeared on

You’ve probably heard a thousand times that as you age, your body and mind begin to “go” — you can no longer move the way you used to and your health deteriorates. But those “facts” couldn’t be further from the truth. Aging doesn’t have to mean decline, in fact, just the opposite. Below are six myths and why each is not true.

Myth No. 1: Your genes predetermine how healthy you are.

Why it’s not true: Although the gene sequence you were born with is fixed, gene expression depends on how you live your life. Simply put, we are beginning to learn that your thoughts, emotions, levels of stress, sleep, exercise, breathing, and mind-body coordination can affect your gene expression.

This means that you can turn on or dial up the good genes and turn off or dial down the bad genes. The idea that we can influence our genes is the new science of epigenetics, and something I am currently researching. What we may find with epigenetics is that we each have much more control over the cellular biology of aging.

Myth No. 2: Getting older means feeling older.

Why it’s not true: We each have a chronological age and a biological age. Your chronological age is the age on your birth certificate and answers the question, “How many times have you, in this body, revolved around the sun?”

Your biological age basically reflects how well your body is functioning. Biological age is based on everything from your blood pressure and body fat, to your bone density and cholesterol levels. It is determined by several factors and does not have to match your chronological age.

How you perceive the process of aging, your expectations and beliefs; how you experience time and how energetic you feel actually determine the biology of aging. Think about it this way: A 50-year-old who takes good care of herself can have the biology of a 35-year-old. Alternatively, a 50-year-old who has let himself go may have the biology of someone many years older. You can be much younger biologically than what your birth certificate says.

Myth No. 3: Your body gets frail as you age.

Why it’s not true: Your body doesn’t have to get frail when you get older. You can increase both the strength and mass of your muscles and even improve bone density through exercises and weight-training. Within six weeks of beginning to exercise, studies show, there’s a 100 to 200 percent increase in strength in men aged 60 to 70. And walking for 30 minutes, five days a week, can add more than seven years to your life, according to a recent Harvard University study.

Myth No. 4: Your brain is destined to deteriorate over time.

Why it’s not true: If you think you lose brain cells as you get older, and those cells are gone forever, think again. Research shows that some areas of the brain involved with memory and learning continue to produce new nerve cells every day. So while you do lose brain cells every day, you also are constantly replacing brain cells.

The best thing you can do to build new brain cells is to keep your brain active with new activities and learning. And one of the best things you can do for your brain later in life, research shows, is learn a new language. (Though learning anything new is good for your brain.)

One more thing about your brain: Only 3 to 4 percent of disease-related gene mutations, including mutations for Alzheimer’s disease, are genetically determined. Most disease-related gene mutations are influenced by lifestyle — including emotions, quality of sleep, diet and stress levels. You don’t have to get Alzheimer’s disease or lose mental alertness as you grow old, unless you have a rare gene mutation.

Myth No. 5: Your energy decreases as you get older.

Why it’s not true: Energy levels in the body don’t depend on age. They depend on your attitude and are influenced by the quality of your life. Meditation, restful sleep and exercise are the best ways to experience a joyful and energetic body.

Myth No. 6: The older you are, the more unhappy you are.

Why it’s not true: Happiness has nothing to do with aging. In fact, the later years can be the best time of your life. Many studies have shown that people get happier as they age.

If you eat healthfully, exercise, take care of your mind and stay connected with others, you can influence your happiness levels and what I call your “Set Point”.

Deepak Chopra, M.D., is the author of more than 75 books which have been translated into over 35 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. Chopra is a fellow of the American College of Physicians, a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, Adjunct Professor of Executive Programs at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Adjunct Professor at Columbia Business School, Columbia University, and Senior Scientist with The Gallup Organization. Time Magazine credits Chopra as one of the “Top 100 heroes and icons of the century.”

Permanent link to this article:

Feb 03


A wonderful way to start each day

Permanent link to this article:

Jan 23

Gay Gaer Luce: Conscious Aging

Permanent link to this article:

Jan 21

Prejudice – Does it block you in Midlife?

In Washington , DC , at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went
through the station, most of them on their way to work. After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.

About 4 minutes later:
The violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in the
hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

At 6 minutes:
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

At 10 minutes:
A 3-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent – without exception – forced their children to move on quickly.

At 45 minutes:
The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

After 1 hour:
He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all. No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold-out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.
This is a true story. Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.
This experiment raised several questions:

*In a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?

*If so, do we stop to appreciate it?

*Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made . . . how many other things are we missing as we rush through life?

Permanent link to this article:

Dec 29

Aging As a Spiritual Crisis, Wit and Wisdom

A few years ago, I came across an article by Bernard Starr in an online journal, Religion and Spirituality.

Dr. Starr titled the article “The Spiritual Emergency of Aging: Surviving ‘Thirty Something’ and Beyond.”

I wasn’t interested in the issues of the 30-something drama. Even my daughters were well past such youthful angst. It was the ages “beyond” that interested me, especially his concept of a spiritual crisis. I saved the article and read it again, recently, as I pondered life as an old person.

Wit and Wisdom has highlighted many of the ages and stages in life’s journey. We speak of the opportunities that later life can bring. We talk about our place in community life. We emphasize our problem-solving skills and our wisdom. We learn to enjoy freedom from the tasks of raising children and making a right livelihood. We may even rejoice in being “older” but never old.

And we are kidding ourselves. Most of us will become old. Yet I feel uncomfortable even using the word “old” here, for it is fraught with negative images that we try to avoid. Many of us will experience the dreaded frailties of old age. We will grumble mightily about the indignities of age, or perhaps make a joke of it, saying “Old age ain’t for sissies.”

But we will cling to life, even to life as an old person.

Within the very real physical difficulties of old age, there lies a significant spiritual crisis. It is a crisis of identity. Who am I?

The tasks and roles that have made life worthwhile gradually slip away. Who am I, if not the parent who provides, the trusted and competent worker, the valued member of the civic or church committee, the one who can be counted on to bring the goodies to coffee hour? Who am I, when I can no longer take my place in the world. Who am I, if I cannot be as I have always been?

We are forced to come to a new understanding of personal worth. Each of us is more than the tasks we have done, the successes we have accumulated. We are more than the failures we have endured. It is not easy to come to this understanding, for we have spent so many years in a tough culture that values productivity above all else.

“But how shall I achieve such a peaceful mind,” a reader might ask. I have a few suggestions that I put in the form of … New Year’s Resolutions!

Well, why shouldn’t octogenarians and those beyond get into the spirit of the season? Add your own thoughts.

Resolution 1: Raise the subject of late life with a good friend. Share your hidden fears and perhaps laugh at yourselves a little.

Resolution 2: If you are a “just the facts, ma’am” kind of person, add a bit of reflection to your life. This might be a book of poetry to read or listening to soothing music on a regular basis.

Resolution 3: Do what you need to do to protect your health (exercise/diet/appropriate medical care).

Resolution 4: Ask your minister or rabbi to develop a sermon on the crisis of late life. The topic can be valuable to younger people as well, as they face their own aging and that of loved ones.

Resolution 5: Engage with other people, age mates and others. I know this is not easy, especially in winter. Check the Keene Senior Center for small group activity. It is critical to stay connected.

Resolution 6: If you are isolated by circumstances, request a visitor from the Neighbors program of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program or a parish visiting program.

Resolution 7: Rejoice as you are able. Tap your toes a bit.

Late life can be difficult. There is much to do, to make possible a safe and satisfying old age. Society has a role here, through government, community institutions and faith communities. Neighborhoods can be important as well. The aged, too, have a role to play. We, the old, must do what we can to age responsibly and well.

Martha Bauman enjoys observing and studying the issues of aging, both in her own life and in the life of the community. She welcomes your comments about senior issues. Email

Permanent link to this article:

Older posts «

Powered by WishList Member - Membership Site Software

Switch to our mobile site