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Aging myths


Explanations > Brains > Neural Aging > Aging myths

Myths | Research | Persuading the old | See also


Speed of movement, vision and memory start to fade as we get older, sometimes from a startlingly early age. But does that mean we fail on all fronts? Thankfully, no.


Here are some myths about aging. Of course not all old people are healthy and happy, but surprising numbers are.

Myth: We lose billions of neurons and so become dumber

Although we lose neurons with age, we do not lose as many as was once thought. We also grow some new ones too.

Myth: The older you get the grumpier you get

In fact most people are happier than younger people. When you are older, there is much to be grateful for and often less immediate worries. Older people often have far greater social skills.

Myth: Old people look back with regret

In fact they tend to look back with rose-tinted spectacles, remembering the good times rather than opportunities missed. In fact they tend to spend more time in the present, savoring the moment. Older people tend to remember positive things whilst the young focus more on the negative.

Myth: Old people have worse mental health

True, some rather unpleasant diseases such as Alzheimer's affect older people, but young people have more than their fair share of mental problems too. In fact, on the whole, older people are generally more mentally stable and have less traumatic issues. As we grow older we get a better perspective on life and work through outstanding issues from our childhood.

Myth: Old people are not as clever

It depends what you were taught. People born earlier in the 20th century are often very good at arithmetic, having it drummed into them early on. More recent generations will probably be good with computers when they grow older (unless computers are replaced with something cleverer, that is).

Myth: Older people forget everything

Whilst memory loss does happen, it is the less important things that tend to be forgotten. Older people seem to hold onto more of the important stuff.

Myth: Older people are worse with words

It is true that a test of word memory may show decline, but older people often have a far better lexicon and speak with greater clarity. They are more practiced at speaking than the young, and it shows.

Myth: Old people are stupid, not wise

Whilst some cognitive functions decline with age, social skills increase. Older people are much better at judging character and generally get on better with other people.


A significant source of myth is biased research. Not intentionally, but through factors such as the way that most researchers are in universities and use who is available, which is largely students, as guinea pigs. Some research has been done to illustrate this problem.

Time of day

For example students are at their best in the afternoon, which is when most experiments take place. But older people are often more alert and have better cognitive functioning in the morning. In a more even experiment, Lynn Hasher at the University of Toronto found that by testing older people between 8am and 9am, with younger people between 4pm and 5pm, nearly half of the difference between ages in a memory test was cut in half.

Stress and conformance

When brought into an unfamiliar university environment, older people may be intimidated, which can lead to stress-related underperformance.

People often act as they think they should act. Just asking people to engage in a test of 'age and memory' can also result in them conforming to stereotype. Students, on the other hand, are expected to be smart. Thomas Hess in North Carolina State University gave older people one of two newspapers before an experiment one with stories about declining memory whilst the other paper talked about memory preservation. Those who read the memory loss remembered 20-30% fewer words from a list.

Older and wiser

Thomas Hess gave people a list of behaviors from a fictitious person. Older people homed in on the more diagnostic factors. Hasher played tapes of people talking, telling subjects these were of good or bad people. Older people forgot who said what, but knew whether what was said was good or bad.

A positive bias

Carstensen and John Gabrieli in Stanford flashed positive and negative scenes in front of people while scanning brain activity. Younger subjects' brains showed more activity when viewing negative images, whilst older people showed more activity for positive images. Differences were most visible in the amygdala, which processes emotions.

Persuading the old

The notes above should give many hints about how to persuade older people.

In California, researcher Carstensen gave people similar camera adverts saying 'Capture the unexpected world' or 'Capture those special moments'. Older people preferred the latter and remembered such slogans more easily.

See also

Age and creativity, Myths of longevity


Helmuth, L. (2003) The wisdom of the wizened, Science, 299, pp. 1300–1302.

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