The idea that it’s all down-hill from your mid-twenties is being re-appraised.
Short-term memory and reasoning may decline with old age but long-term memory, vocabulary, emotional intelligence and social skills, can all get better according to researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and reported in The Sunday Times; “Silver set rides wave of greater brain power” (27/6/2010).
Older people are more efficient at problem-solving than the young as they can draw on previous experience and older people also make more rational decisions. Researchers at the University of California studied people aged between 60 and 100 and found that they were less dependent on dopamine, the feel-good hormone sometimes associated with addictive behaviour, and therefore were less influenced by emotions or impulsivity.
This may explain why leaders and senior people in many professions and organisations are in their 50s and 60s. Two-thirds of FTSE 100 CEOs are aged over 50 and judges want to be able to work until they are 70.
Last August the Ministry of Justice proposed that people over the age of 70 should be allowed to sit on juries, although perhaps with an opt-out clause for those who didn’t feel up to it. Judges, who like magistrates and tribunal members have to retire at 70, have strongly opposed the idea.
Although it might save money, as most elderly jurors won’t need compensation for lost earnings, judges say older jurors could be more susceptible to illness and disability which could disrupt proceedings (sounds a bit like sour grapes to me).
A report from the Department of Work & Pensions: “Attitudes to Age in Britain 2004-2008” found that 48% of people found age discrimination a serious issue and more common, with 1 in 4 experiencing it, than any other form of discrimination. Stereotypically older people are seen as warmer and more moral but less competent whereas younger people are seen as exactly the opposite. The survey also showed that older people welcome flexibility and are keen to learn as well as to contribute their skills and experience. However they are less optimistic than younger people and more realistic.
The physical demands on older workers need to be considered as well as health issues like impaired vision, muscle strength, balance and flexibility, Research from America, where 25% of 65-74 year olds are still working, shows that employers want the brainpower, experience and knowledge of older workers but not the risk of injuries or sickness absence.
Workers need to exercise their mental and physical faculties to keep healthy and motivated. There is growing evidence that mental and physical exercise can boost brain power. Three 40 minute walks a week can improve memory and reasoning while mental stimulation can improve problem-solving and reaction times.
In Finland the Helsinki Times recently reported on a story in the Finnish financial newspaper Talous Sanomat which cast doubts on whether increased life expectancy automatically meant that people should work longer.
This debate has the Confederation of Finnish Industries arguing for a retirement age of 70 because of increasing life expectancy and the belief that people should work to that age. On the other hand the National Institute for Health and Welfare is urging caution because of the variations in health and the ability to work amongst older people.
Experts say only a small percentage of 70-year olds would be in good enough shape for paid employment as many 70-year olds suffer from memory lapses, muscle weakness, heart problems, and diabetes.
See also “Practice makes perfect, probably”