There are two stereotypes in circulation about aging and mental ability – a negative one and a positive one. We associate aging with becoming slower, less ‘on the ball’, and with memory loss. We also may link aging with the idea of wisdom and negotiation skills – useful for many contemporary social problems.

In our arguably youth-centred culture, exercising more cynicism, we may reflect and assume that there will indeed be scientific evidence for the negative stereotype but not the positive one. We may assume that the positive stereotype exists just to make older people feel better about their lot. But what we find in fact is that both stereotypes find support. That in some very important domains being older puts a person at an intellectual advantage. Cognition can be better in old age compared to young adulthood and being middle aged.

There is a substantial body of scientific evidence that indicates that, yes, as we age many of our mental processes become less efficient – notably our fluid intelligence. For this reason, we recommend exercise, nutrition that stimulates neurogenesis (such as creatine), and brain training with the dual n-back exercise that specifically targets the fluid intelligence and short term memory neural circuitry this is most vulnerable to degeneration during aging.

These cognitive declines may be a concern if you’re in your mid-60s plus. But there are important gains that can offset these losses in the overall balance sheet of cognitive abilities. A recent study by Grossmann and his colleagues, published in a prestigious scientific journal – the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – tested the idea that as we age our wisdom improves, in the sense of gaining in the ability to mediate and resolve interpersonal conflicts. In their study, they asked participants to read stories about intergroup and interpersonal conflicts and predict how these conflicts would unfold. They found that compared to young and middle-aged people, older people make better use of higher-order reasoning abilities that emphasize the need for:

  • multiple perspectives,
  • allow for compromise
  • recognize the limits of knowledge

These results were subsequently confirmed by a group of professional counsellors. Thus the results show that social reasoning improves with age – despite a decline in fluid intelligence.

The authors of the study state:

The results suggest that it might be advisable to assign older individuals to key social roles involving legal decisions, counselling, and intergroup negotiations.

This is a welcome result. Given all the research that is done on the negative effects of aging, this study can encourage clinicians to emphasize the built in strengths associated with aging. There is a scientific basis to the ‘wisdom of age’ cliche.

Grossmann, et al (2010), Reasoning about social conflicts improves into old age, PNAS, 2010, 107, (16), 7246-7250.

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