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The Good News About Older Brains

Allworth CEO Scott Hanson shares how a key part of your intelligence gets better as you age.  

 

If you’re over 50, you probably worry about the health of your brain.

That’s normal.

Almost half of us rate brain health as our biggest concern.1  

The fact is that pretty much every mature person I know tends to think and feel that they aren’t quite as mentally fast as they once were.

Now, to be sure, besides age, there are lots of excellent reasons for this (medications, fatigue, stress, and overwork).

But it’s been my experience that along with a sense that we aren’t as quick to absorb new information as we once were, comes the worry about maintaining our relevance in, and a connection to, a world that feels more difficult to influence as we age.  

So, are age and a loss of influence synonymous?

Not so fast.

There’s an important part of brain function and intelligence that improves with age.

No matter whether you’re retired, preparing to retire, hoping to work until you’re 90, or just want to contribute at a familiar level, by prioritizing this part of your intelligence, you can help ensure that you continue to have a positive impact on the world.

But how?

A little backstory. It was in the 1940s that psychologist Raymond Cattell first published the idea that there were two types of intelligence.

First, there’s “fluid intelligence.”

Most simply put, fluid intelligence is the ability to learn new things and solve problems independent of your existing knowledge. People who are good at solving puzzles and navigating mazes have a high degree of it.

In fact, it’s called “fluid intelligence” because it’s adaptive just like water.

Now, make no mistake, fluid intelligence does tend to flatten or decrease with age.

And that makes sense.

Sure, in our modern world, the importance of fluid intelligence may seem obvious as it helps us learn math, a new language, or even a subway system in an unfamiliar city. And, case in point, many famous innovators and inventors accomplished their biggest breakthroughs early in their careers when their fluid intelligence was highest.

But fluid intelligence is instinctual; an inherited or “luck of the draw” talent that is of course strongest when we’re younger because its evolutionary purpose is to help keep us alive for long enough that we eventually learn how to avoid danger and stay alive.  

So, when it comes to fluid intelligence, when precisely do we peak?

Even among scientists, there’s debate. Some have pegged it at around 25 years of age, while others have said you are still summiting your fluid intelligence peak well into your 40s.

But while that kind of intelligence does decline as we get older, we have an ace up our sleeves.  

Enter “crystallized intelligence.”

Crystallized intelligence is our ability to summon and apply the knowledge we’ve absorbed in the past. It’s the opposite of fluid intelligence, because it’s rooted in the part of the brain that has been stocked with information and skills that we’ve gathered over our lifetimes via education and experience.

And, for most people, be it our 60s, 70s or even our 80s, it doesn’t peak until very late in life.

The benefits of emphasizing crystallized intelligence as we age.

We are all getting older.

As we age, if you are retired and feel a sense of loss, or if you are still working and your career is primarily based on innovation, such as, say, you design software, you might look around and perceive that the most innovative ideas seem to be flowing from others (though there are countless, wonderful age-defying exceptions).

For those of us concerned about how we can continue to influence and be relevant as we age, it’s important to remember that you have something that even the most-savvy young innovators don’t: superior experience and greater crystallized intelligence.

Emphasizing your crystallized intelligence can benefit you, your career, your enjoyment of life, and those around you.

Take composer Johann Sebastian Bach. In the early 1700s, at the peak of his career he was earning massive sums and was the most famous person in Europe.

But around middle age, Bach began to find it difficult to compose at the high level he had routinely achieved only a few years before.

Some music critics assumed he was through.

So, what did he do?

He cut back on composing and instead focused on tutoring and collaborating with young musicians, several of whom rose to prominence and fame.

This he did until the day he died.  

Everyone ages differently, and of course some changes are inevitable. But there are two things you can do to rekindle some lost creative spark or sense of influence.

First, embrace the changes.

Use what you’ve learned, like Bach, and whether working or retired, prioritize the opportunity to teach, coach or mentor others to help maximize their potential and to positively impact the world around you.

Second, because your brain is a muscle (it isn’t really, but it does respond a bit like one), you should continue to work on your fluid intelligence.

This you can do by:

  • Seeking out new experiences and novelty
  • Pushing yourself to talk to people you don’t know
  • Taking up a new artistic interest, language or hobby
  • Listening to music you’ve never heard before
  • Putting yourself in a position where you must answer questions

Almost no matter what our age, our brains can take us almost anywhere.

And while certainly, there are many things (injury and disease) that are beyond our control, there are exceptions to every rule: even the rules of nature.    

So, here’s to striving to become an exception, and, when necessary, to fluidly pivot like Johann Sebastian Bach so we can all continue to positively influence the world around us, for life. 

 

1 https://www.healthyagingpoll.org/report/thinking-about-brain-health