Let’s bust the stereotype that as people age their mental capacity declines!

Most people tend to think ageing means inevitable physical and mental decline.  Recent research is showing that this is not necessarily the case.  In fact, our mental capacity can remain productive well into old age. 

Why is this important?

Globally, the number of older persons (aged 60 years or over) is expected to more than double, from 841 million people in 2013 to more than 2 billion in 2050. Older persons are projected to exceed the number of children for the first time in 2047.

This change in our demographics is happening now and perhaps we need to throw out some of the old stereotypes... 

I recently heard a fascinating podcast on the BBC World Service Discovery program about mental agility and ageing. The various European researchers agree the assumption that all older people have a declining mental capacity is not necessarily true. A person’s mental ability can decline, it can remain the same, or it can increase as people age, depending on the person. The researchers have different opinions about why this is the case. In summary:

  • Genetics plays a big role in mental agility into old age;
  • Our brains are adaptable and we can improve our mental agility through active use and training;
  • Environmental factors, which we can influence, can also affect mental agility. For example smoking can have a negative affect, while speaking a second language and physical exercise can improve mental agility;
  • As we age we acquire more information and knowledge. It therefore takes our brains longer to search and retrieve the things we know, but the value of that knowledge increases.

One of the researchers likens our brains to a computer. The first time we use a brand new computer, it is the fastest it will ever be. As we use it more, add more software and store more data, the computer becomes slower. Much like our brains as we age, but it also becomes an increasingly valuable resource, due to the knowledge and wisdom it holds.

While there are many  different theories about why and how our brains change over time, new research does agree that the belief that people’s mental capacity declines as we age is a stereotype that must be challenged! 

An older person’s mental ability is a very individual thing and there are many intellectually sharp older people, full of valuable knowledge and wisdom who can continue to contribute to society.

This becomes increasingly relevant for the way we see the participation of elders in future economies that are driven by knowledge and have more older people who are living longer. It is time to throw out the stereotype of mental decline and ageing. Instead, we should value people on individual merit and capacity and provide alternatives to employment that leverage their knowledge, expertise and wisdom.