What is positive ageing?

Dr Katya Numbers, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at CHeBA (Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing UNSW Sydney), looks at the upsides of growing older.

A person born today is expected to live, on average, 34 years longer than their great-grandparents – an entire second adult lifetime. Amid this so-called ‘longevity revolution’ exists a great irony. Most people want to live longer, but they don’t want to be old. Reviews of the literature suggest these negative attitudes are endemic from children to older adults. 

This is important because our feelings about ageing – both before and during our older years – impact mental, physical, and cognitive health as we age. Studies show that those with more negative attitudes towards ageing in their 30s and 40s are more likely to develop cardiovascular disorders, depression and dementia in their 70s and 80s. With these far-reaching effects of ageist beliefs, it’s even more important to acknowledge and internalise the many benefits of growing older. So here are a few reasons to think positively about ageing.

You’ll be happier

As it turns out, grumpy old people used to be grumpy young people. Despite popular belief that older people are more depressed and anxious, research shows that we may actually become more emotionally stable as we age. Older adults have better emotional regulation, recovering from negative events faster than younger adults. The positivity bias, observed in both the lab and in the community, means that older adults are more likely to remember positive information than younger adults. In short, negative emotions tend to mellow with age while happiness increases. 

You’ll be wiser

Scientists used to think that we lose a significant number of brain cells as we age, but more sophisticated scans now show that our cognitive peak is between the ages of 40 and 68. Over time, our brains build connections and recognise patterns, which means we’re better problem-solvers and can more quickly get the gist of an argument. We become better at knowing what we know (crystallised intelligence). This, along with vocabulary, IQ, and ‘wisdom skills’, significantly increase as we age.

You’ll be more confident

The old adage is true – age brings wisdom, which in turn leads to more confidence. Why? Because we accumulate life experiences as we age, and these are powerful tools to draw on to make future decisions. Research shows that most older adults feel more comfortable in themselves (88%), with a strong sense of purpose(80%). Self-esteem also rises, increasing with wealth, education, health and employment. 

You’ll be more satisfied

Older adults engage in less upward social comparison than younger adults, with studies showing that most report their feelings toward ageing have become more positive (67%), and that their life is better than they thought it would be (65%). Older adults typically have a smaller but closer circle of friends than younger people, because they focus on those who are important for their emotional bonds.