More years were added to average life expectancy in the 20th century than across all prior millennia of human evolution, combined, as Laura Carstensen pointed out in her 2012 TED talk ‘Older people are happier’. Most of those extra years are healthy years, and we have more energy than out forebears at the same age.

We remain productive, mentally able and capable until well into our 80s, although you might not realise it if you looked at how older Australians are still represented in the media. It’s time to recognise that things have changed, that the life course has changed. Research clearly shows that old standards based on chronological age are no longer relevant for measuring health, mental capacity or motivation.

One of the most pervasive stereotypes is that our brains decay as we age, and many people assume that after 50, ‘senior moments’ increase and our capacity to think and our ability to contribute intellectually declines markedly. But it isn’t necessarily so. Older, more experienced people have higher levels of ‘crystallised’ intelligence – a type of intelligence that relates strongly to wisdom gained through experience and also verbal reasoning, as a result of education and practice. In contrast, ‘fluid’ intelligence – the ability to solve novel problems using inherited basic reasoning ability – is slightly higher among younger people. When you take both into account, it balances out almost entirely.

Many of the assumptions people (including scientists) currently make about cognitive decline are seriously flawed and, for the most part, formally invalid.  For example, recent Queensland government research shows no sign of cognitive decline until people are well into their 80s or even older. Most offs will never get dementia, never.

And there are many things older people can do to ‘age-proof’ their brains, and preserve (even increase) all kinds of cognitive function throughout their life. Most are simple and are being adopted by people of all ages – including physical exercise, meditation, better diet choices, living a purposeful life, connecting with others and learning new skills. Exciting new research into the causes of dementia is also starting to appear – I particularly like Prof. Michael Valenzuela’s ‘three keys’ approach, where you focus on activities with a physical, mental and social component. He recommends learning the tango as the ultimate brain aid (though he is originally from South America, so…).

No more ‘senior moment’ excuses!

Joanna Maxwell

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