Do We Really Get Smarter As We Age?

A resounding yes! Or, perhaps it’s because I am a woman of, uh, um, a certain age that I say that. But scientists say that wisdom really does seem to come with age and who am I to disagree, right?

There is fairly significant research that shows memory worsens as we age, but research also seems to suggest that our strategy for the way that we process thoughts and information changes for the better.

In a study published in Psychological Sciencepsychologists designed a model where the participants had to evaluate given results in order to strategize the next logical choice in the situation.They found that using this methodology, older decision makers noticeably made better choices.

Dr. Darrell Worthy of Texas A&M University said, “We found that older adults are better at evaluating the immediate and delayed benefits of each option they choose from. They are better at creating strategies in response to the environment.”

Researchers believe this difference reflects the ways we use our brains as we age.

There is an area of the brain called the ventral striatum.  This relates to habitual, reflective learning and the desire for immediate rewards, or in other words – impulsivity  This is the area that younger adults use most. But as this portion of the brain declines, older adults compensate by using their pre-frontal cortex, where more rational, deliberative thinking is controlled.

Older Minds, Better Decisions

This is good news for the aging population – and for organizations. The U.S. Census Bureau believes the world population in 2050 will be about around 9 billion, with a hefty amount in the 50+ population. Just imagine how organizations will benefit from an aging population. We shouldn’t waste intellectual capital. Rational and deliberative thinking is highly sought after in today’s organizations.

Our brain is divided into two hemispheres and each side specializes in different operations. Brain scans show that while young people often use only one side for a specific task, middle-aged and older adults are more likely to activate both hemispheres at once—a pattern known as bilateralization.

When we talk about using full brain power – that is what those who are older do.They use the full range of their brain’s power.That allows them to make more meaningful connections to a problem or situation.

Millennial vs. Baby Boomer

The research also showed that in comparison with younger adults, older adults were better at regulating their emotions.They are also better with understanding social conflict, and it goes without saying that they generally have more accumulated knowledge about the world.

On the flipside, older adults process information more slowly, they have more trouble inhibiting habitual behavior, and they tend to remember less new information.

This is the difference between crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence.Crystallized intelligence is your knowledge base, what you know and know well. Fluid intelligence is your capacity to learn and employ new information. So while the aging population does have wisdom, the capacity and ability to learn more diminishes.

Wisdom is Calculated by the Number of Steps We Have Journeyed

As for me, I believe there is a simple formula to wisdom. Wisdom is calculated by the steps we’ve journeyed and what we learned through that journey. Nothing “science-y” at all about that. Just real life.

You Become an Instant Expert Even in New Situations

As our brain encounters new experiences and situations, it develops representations or mental outlines that allow us to recognize and react to similar circumstances when similar situations happen again. So we may develop a few wrinkles here and there but by midlife we’ve amassed a stash of schemas that help give us our bearings even in new situations. We just know what to do.We feel it.It’s in our gut.And it flows so naturally and effortlessly from the reservoir of knowledge and experience that we’ve assembled up over time.

That’s wisdom.

Final Thoughts

We’ve seen the difference between younger brains and the aging brain as shown above. What that means to the workplace is that we need everyone. Everyone from the Millennial to the Baby Boomer and all that is in between. Everyone brings something different. Everyone should be celebrated. We can rely upon and help each other develop and with our combined strengths, we pretty much have it all covered, right?

As for me, I embrace my baby boomer generation.I’ve earned every wrinkle that I have. Oh sure, you still wonder how you’ve gone from being the youngest to being, well, not the youngest any longer.  Time really does fly but our experiences make us and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. 

So the next time age seems to be getting the best of you, just sit back and be wise.

You’ve earned it.

Let us know what you think!