Brainmatters | About old people, and things that are going better all the time


Do you know the best predictor of the success of a heard of elephants? The age of the oldest cow. Elegant experimental research conducted by animal psychologist Karen McComb and colleagues in Kenia, shows that older females respond far more adequately to a genuine threat from the environment than their younger antipodes. The older the oldest cow, the better the chance of survival of the herd as a whole.

According to Dante, the Italian poet from the late Middle Ages, man was old at 45. I myself am 46 and have had to use reading glasses for a year now, so in that sense Dante was right. However, thanks to better living conditions, nutrition, medical care, and especially hygiene we are growing considerably older- on average. The average life expectancy in the Netherlands at present for men is around 80, and for women slightly higher than that.

In addition, we have, to use a term deployed by Wilders out of context, a tsunami of elderly - the relative number of senior citizens will increase enormously in the years to come. This phenomenon is known as the ‘double ageing’ - more elderly people, who live longer as well.

Society is devoting a great deal of attention to the challenges that come with double ageing in terms of healthcare, independent living, and quality of life. Smart technological solutions are intended to slow down the pace at which deteriorating elderly people deteriorate, or to do so in such a way that we do not need to take care of them so much.

There seems to be quite enough to look forward to

I suppose it is due to my own increasing age, but I have great trouble accepting the rhetoric of progressing decay, and the societal marginalization of senior citizens that comes with it. So here is a modest attempt to put things into perspective. Research has shown that growing older is accompanied by a decrease in stress and worries, less uncertainty about who you are and what you can do, and greater empathy.

Meanwhile wisdom does indeed seem to increase over the years - older people have more knowledge, and more experience of life, and usually take more well-considered decisions. Older people sleep better, have less trouble with their immune system, and, to cap it all, have better sex. So there seems to be quite enough to look forward to.

Still, the most important lessons may well be learned from the elephants. Our oldest colleagues - and as far as I am concerned, they do not necessarily have to be female - possess a wealth of knowledge and skills, a healthy sense of perspective concerning the university rat race, and a historic awareness of our place in the social arena. So stretch the pensionable age, and make room for the emeriti! We still have so much to learn from them.

Wijnand IJsselsteijn | Professor of Cognition and Affect in Human-Technology Interaction

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