6 Ways Our Birthdays Make Us Better

What’s so great about getting older? A lot, if you asked Betty Friedan: “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” Just think about what’s still waiting for you: wisdom that only comes from experience, less daily stress and anxiety, and a greater appreciation of your family and friends, to name a few. And while the media plays up youth as our best years, scientists are finding that there are a lot of great reasons to look forward to our fifties and beyond. What exactly? Read on.

Look Forward to the Future

Look Forward to the Future

What’s so great about getting older? A lot, if you asked Betty Friedan: “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” Just think about what’s still waiting for you: wisdom that only comes from experience, less daily stress and anxiety, and a greater appreciation of your family and friends, to name a few. And while the media plays up youth as our best years, scientists are finding that there are a lot of great reasons to look forward to our fifties and beyond. What exactly? Read on.

We’re Happier

We’re Happier

If another birthday gets you down, think like an octogenarian, instead. They’re actually happier than the average teenager. According to a major University of Chicago study published in the American Sociological Review, those at the ripe old age of 80 had more than a 50 percent chance of rating themselves happy. Meanwhile barely 33 percent of 18-year-olds could say they feel the same way. 

This research came from the “gold standard” of happiness data, the General Social Survey (GSS) of the National Opinion Research Center that’s been asked of participants since 1972. The possible reason for this burst of elation? Maturity breeds contentment, suggests the scientists. Other studies reinforce this. Stress and anger diminish steadily once people hit 50, too, found research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

We Make Better Decisions (About Our Money, Too)

We Make Better Decisions (About Our Money, Too)

There’s not much question that wisdom comes with age when it comes to making financial decisions. But that was confirmed by a 2009 study published by the Brooking Institution, which found those between the ages of 43 and 63 “are really in their cognitive sweet spot,” according to Harvard professor and study co-author David Laibson, especially when it comes to avoiding money mistakes. A more recent study has gone even further to dispel myths about the elderly and decision making. 

I only need to watch my grandfather whip me at poker to believe this study from MetLife. In the first study of its kind to try to identify the specific types of cognitive decisions seniors make, scientists found the brains of those in their seventies were just as good at making sound strategic decisions as those decades young — a skill, said MetLife, that suggests we’ll be able to make smart financial planning decisions well into our old age. 

We Give Better Advice

We Give Better Advice

Move over Chuck Klosterman. At age 41, you just may be too young to give sound advice. When 200 people, aged 25 to 93, were asked to dole out resolutions to issues that were actually printed in past columns of Dear Abby, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor researchers found that those 65 and over gave better advice. Ranked in terms of the ability to see other viewpoints, the various ways a scenario could play out and also the likelihood of someone else changing her behavior, the grey-haired population surpassed the young in terms of judgment. Said the study authors: “Social reasoning improves with age,” suggesting “it might be advisable to assign older individuals to key social roles involving legal decisions, counseling and intergroup negotiations.”

We Pick Up New Skills

We Pick Up New Skills

It may never be too late to learn chess, create the perfect soufflé or perhaps join the circus, say University of Hamburg neuroscientists. In looking to examine the “structural neuroplasticity” of seniors, the study authors wanted to learn, in other words, if you can “teach an old dog new tricks,” specifically, how to juggle three balls over a three-month period. The results? You’re never too old to learn just like the younger brain. Reported the scientists: “Our data suggest that, at least in principle, the human brain, even in older age, maintains its capacity to change its structure according to learning or exercise demands.”

We’re More Likely to Gloss Over Bad Stuff

We’re More Likely to Gloss Over Bad Stuff

It seems we’re hard-wired to remember the good when we’re older. Scientists from the University of Auckland and Boston College used magnetic resonance imaging of the brains of subjects from ages 19 to 80 to find out just how new memories were formed at different ages. Then subjects were asked to look at positive and negative images (from happy skiers to injured soldiers). The authors found that age did matter when recalling the good and bad images. When processing the positive pictures, the part of the brain that deals with memory formation was much more active in the older adults than the younger crowd. It seems we’re circuited to forget bad things as we age.

We Can Eat as Many French Fries as We Want!

We Can Eat as Many French Fries as We Want!

I’ve saved the best for last. Let’s back up: We all know that a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats, sugar and salt are a key to longevity. So researchers wanted to know if this healthy eating pattern will also provide the same benefits to the over-75 set. After tracking 449 seniors for five years, Penn State scientists found that there was no higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes or high blood pressure in those who ate a diet high in fried food, soft drinks, even booze.  

In fact, study author Gordon Jensen almost goes as far as to suggest that healthy eating shouldn’t even be a priority: “The results suggest that if you live to be this old, there may be little to support the use of overly restrictive dietary prescriptions, especially where food intake may already be inadequate.” Now, we definitely have something to look forward to!

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