Decoding the Secrets of Ageing

What are the determinants of how we age? The different systems in our brains age at different rates. Some systems decline as others increase in efficiency and effectiveness. The basic message we hear in popular culture, that ageing is a time of unmitigated decline, is not accurate. Yes, some things do slow down, but our health, happiness, and mental sparkle need not. The latest neuroscientific research suggests an entirely new way of thinking about ageing — about memory, our perceptual systems, intelligence, even motivation, pain, and our social lives. You might think, as I used to, that the story of why some of us age better than others have to do with all of these cognitive and emotional factors. The biggest single determinant of living a productive and happy life is something that you’re born with (partly) and something that you can decide to change: your personality.
I visited a daycare centre for preschoolers recently and was struck by how early the differences in children’s traits and individual dispositions show up. Some children are more outgoing, while others are shy; some like to explore the environment and take risks, while others are more fearful; some get along well with others and some are bullies — even by age four. Young parents who have more than one child sees immediate differences in the dispositions of siblings, as well as differences between their offspring and themselves.
At the other end of life, there are clear differences in how people age — some people simply seem to fare better than others. Even setting aside differences in physical health, and the various diseases that might overcome us late in life, some older adults live more dynamic, engaged, active, and fulfilling lives than others. Can you look at a five-year-old and tell whether they will be a successful eighty-five-year-old? Yes, you can.
The discovery that ageing and health are related to personality was the result of a lot of work. First, scientists had to figure out how to measure and define personality. What is it? How do you observe it?
accurately and quantitatively? Here, they may have taken inspiration from Galileo, who said, “The job of the scientist is to measure what is measurable and to render measurable that which is not.” And so they did.
Among the most solid findings is that a child’s personality affects adult health outcomes later in life. Take, for example, a child who was always getting into trouble in elementary school and continued to do so as a preteen. As a teenager, they might have smoked cigarettes, drunk alcohol, and used marijuana. In personality terms, we might say that this teenager was sensation- and adventure-seeking, high on the quality of extraversion, low on conscientiousness and emotional stability. The kid would have been at increased risk for hard drug use, or being killed in a motor vehicle accident while driving drunk. If they survived these increased risks in young adulthood but didn’t change their habits, they’d enter middle age with a highly inflated risk of lung cancer from smoking or liver damage from drinking. Even more subtle behaviours can influence many decades later: Early and compulsive exposure to the sun and sun tanning; poor dental hygiene; poor exercise habits; and obesity all take their toll.
One of the pioneers in the relationship between personality and ageing is Sarah Hampson, a research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute. As Hampson notes, “Lack of self-control may result in behaviours that increase the probability of exposure to dangerous or traumatic situations and adversely affect health through long-lasting biological consequences of stress.” She has found that childhood is a the critical period for laying down patterns of behaviour with biological effects that endure into adulthood. If you want to live a long and healthy life, it helps to have the right upbringing. Childhood personality traits, assessed in elementary school, predict a person’s lipid levels, blood glucose, and waist size forty years later. These three markers, in turn, predict the risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The same childhood traits even predict life span.
Although these correlations between early childhood and late adulthood personality are robust, they tell only a part of the story. People age differently, and part of that story has to do with the interaction of genetics, environment, and opportunity (or luck). Scientists developed a mathematical way of tracking personality, comparing traits as they differ across individuals or change within a person over time. With it, we can talk about age-related, culture-related, and medically induced changes in personality, such as occur with Alzheimer’s disease. Often one of the first indications of a problem with your brain is a personality change.
And in the past few years, developmental science has shown that people, even older adults, can meaningfully change — we do not have to live out a life that was paved for us by genetics, environment, and opportunity. The great psychologist William James wrote that personality was “set in plaster” by early adulthood, but fortunately, he was wrong. The idea that people retain the capacity to change throughout their life span didn’t take hold until the mid-seventies, when an idea first put forward by psychologist Nancy Bayley was popularized by the German developmental psychologist Paul Baltes: –
Most developmental researchers do accept the notion that developmental change is not restricted to any specific stage of the lifespan and that, depending upon the function and the environmental context, behaviour change can be pervasive and rapid at all ages. In fact, . . . the rate of change is greatest in infancy and old age.
Not everyone takes advantage of this capacity, but it is there, like the ability to adjust your diet or your wardrobe. The events of your childhood can be overcome and transformed based on experiences you have later in life. Bayley and Baltes’ big idea was that no single period of life holds supremacy over another. Of course, the idea that people can change is the entire basis of modern psychotherapy. People seek psychiatrists and psychologists because they want to change, and modern psychiatry and psychology are largely effective in treating or curing a great number of mental disorders and stressors, especially phobias, anxiety, stress disorders, relationship problems, and mild to moderate depression. Some of these volitional changes revolve around improved lifestyle choices, while others entail changing our personalities,
Sometimes only slightly, to give us the best chance of ageing well. To implement the changes that will be most effective, each of us might think about the fundamental components of how we are now, how we used to be, and how we’d like to be.
The collection of dispositions and traits that we have in any given period comprise our personalities. All cultures tend to describe people using trait-based labels, such as generous, interesting, and reliable (on the positive side) or stingy, boring, and erratic (on the negative side), along with more or less neutral or context-dependent terms such as boyish and breezy. This “trait” approach, however, can obscure two important facts: (1) we often display different traits as situations change, and (2) we can change our traits.
Few people are generous, interesting, or reliable all the time — opportunity and the fluidly evolving situations in which we find ourselves can exert a strong pull on what may be genetic predispositions toward certain behaviours and certain habitual ways of presenting ourselves to the world. Traits are probabilistic descriptions of behaviour. Someone who is described as high on one trait (having a lot of it) will display that trait more often and more intensely than someone low on that trait. Someone agreeable has a greater probability of displaying agreeableness than someone disagreeable, but disagreeable people are still agreeable some of the time, just as introverts are extraverted some of the time.
In unravelling the secrets of ageing, we have come to understand that our personalities are not fixed and rigid, but rather dynamic and adaptable. The notion of traits as deterministic descriptors has given way to a more nuanced understanding of human behaviour. We are shaped not only by our genetic predispositions but also by the ever-changing tapestry of circumstances that surround us. As we navigate through life’s opportunities and challenges, our traits ebb and flow, revealing different facets of our personalities. The decoding of the ageing process reminds us that the journey of self-discovery is ongoing and that our capacity for growth and change knows no bounds. Embracing the fluidity of our traits, we embark on a lifelong quest to harness our potential, continually rewriting the narrative of who we are and who we can become.
Reference: Successful Ageing

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