An earlier version of this piece was published on PassioInventa in August 2019

In American society, and most of the rest of the world, aging is often viewed as a negative process . Older people are less agile and slower to process information. Indeed, performance on a variety of cognitive tasks declines with age (see review). And changes in information processing speed and memory processes are thought to underlie a variety of decision making behaviors in older adults. Here, I will review how an aging brain results in potentially negative and positive  behaviors. The science also points to ways to improve your brain health and mood through exercise and positive thinking.

An aging world and how to age well

Breakthroughs in medical treatment have resulted in a worldwide population living longer and a graying of the population across much of the world. The global senior (aged 65 or older) population is projected to reach 1.5 billion by 2050 and double its representative share of the worldwide population from 8% in 2010 to 16% by 2050. 

As our population ages and we grapple with this effect on our various societal, federal support, and financial systems, one is left wondering how can we ensure we age well? 

Much work has sought to identify the key factors of ‚Äúsuccessful aging‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúaging well‚ÄĚ (see here, here, and here).

Physical activity and cognitive engagement have been shown to limit cognitive decline, at least in the short-run. Furthermore, lifetime cognitive activity and current physical activity have been associated with better brain health, including less beta-amyloid burden, a key metric associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. 

Physical activity may help to slow normal brain aging and boost longevity. Work from my research colleagues has demonstrated that older adults showing greater physical activity as measured via a pedometer had less age-related decline in dopamine levels in a portion of the brain thought to be critical in reward processing and decision making. Note that this study was cross-sectional (i.e., we looked at age-related decline at the group level and did not follow individuals over time to look at their own age-related changes in our measures).  

Front view of female trainer training senior people in performing exercise ball at home
Get a work out in‚ÄĒ it’s good for your aging brain!

Increased positivity with aging

Interestingly, positive affectivity increases with aging (see here, here, and here) and older people attend to and remember the past more positively than younger people (see here and here). This phenomenon has even been given a name: the Positivity Effect. 

Positivity has a major effect on older adult health. Across a thirteen-year period‚ÄĒcontrolling for age, sex, and ethnicity‚ÄĒindividuals who experienced relatively more positive than negative emotions in everyday life were more likely to have survived as they aged.¬†

There is also evidence that emotional experiences grow more stable with age and that the co-occurrence of positive and negative emotions or ‚Äúpoignancy‚ÄĚ steadily increases with age. The concurrent experience of positive and negative emotions contributes to emotional stability, and emotional stability is associated with well-being.¬†

And relatively new work has suggested that older adults’ increased emotional stability allows them to successfully resist potentially unhealthy desires that conflict with their goals. 

A biological basis for the positivity effect has not been identified and it may be more a function of the perspective of older individuals than due to any single signal or process in the brain.

There are both positives and negatives to aging and the finite nature of life often allows us to focus more on the positives. So, while aging has its downsides, it isn’t all that bad. 

Having a positive outlook on life might help you live longer and with better health.

Science indicates physical and cognitive activity can help one age well by keeping our brains sharp. This effect may be due to the slowing of natural age-related dopamine decline, among other biological processes, and could reduce the likelihood of Alzheimer’s Disease. Plus, feeling good from such activity increases our mood which has its own beneficial effects. In fact, some research suggests having a positive self-perception of aging leads to living longer and better health in old age. 

So, remember all the good things that come along with aging and try to have a positive perspective on your own life. You might just live longer because of it.

For more see:

Review on aging, decision making, affect, and dopamine’s role in these processes 

YouTube TED Talk Links:

Positive Perspective on Aging: Love & live the life you always wanted

Aging: It’s Not What You Think