Aging: wisdom or depression?

There are multiple proverbs dealing with aging. Getting older sucks. Older people are wise. Smart people are depressed. So, which is it? Every year we mark the passing of time on our birthday and on New Year’s Eve. Should we be content, should we worry, maybe both? Here I want to focus on processing of sensory information. More reading here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Smell and age

The sense that should be associated with aging is the sense of smell. We associate smells with places and experiences, creating emotional memories. Episodical memory is highly connected with smells, and smells can activate memories from various periods of our lives. With age, males before females, we lose our sense of smell. While we may have glasses for reading and hearing device for voices and music, I am not aware of smell-enhancing gadgets.

Less known, similar effects happen in taste. Between the ages of 40 and 50, the number of taste buds decreases, and the rest begin to shrink, losing mass vital to their operation. After age 60, you may begin to lose the ability to distinguish the taste of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter foods. So while grandparents are often great cooks, they are not very good tasters.

Young parents are very sensitive to smells and tastes, and their most important task is to take care of kids sensitive to all sorts of infections. Elderly adults are less sensitive to health issues, so if the room is not perfectly ventilated or the food is a bit old, it is not critical. More often than not, the most exotic foods and perfumes will have mild health risks like allergies, and as we age it makes sense to use safer stuff.

Does this mean that as we age we have fewer sensory delights? It does. This is a somewhat depressing realization. The story is even more depressing when we understand that loss of smell is one of the early signs of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

With age memory degrades, but we can compensate for it. If you want to learn everything about memory, try my memory masterclass , and for lifestyle try my lifestyle wellbeing sleep course. You don’t need to cover the full cost. Reach out to [email protected] to inquire about a substantial discount. Satisfaction is assured.

The sounds remain

While we may lose some smell and taste entirely as we age, the loss of sound can be negated.  New leaps of technology enable the construction of cheap sturdy high-fidelity quality hearing aids. While hearing aids can be annoying, they overall ensure that even as we age we do not become deaf. This means that as we age, the role of complex music in our lives increases.

Just like smell, the soundtrack is associated with various periods of our lives. After partial loss of smell and taste, we can still recreate some of the better memories using the relevant soundtracks.

We do not lose neuroplasticity as we age, so an increasing number of neurons deal with sounds. This means that as we age, our sensitivity to sounds and their nuances actually grow. While it might be too late to learn musical virtuosity, old age is a great time to enjoy music.

This is also one of the indicators for good memorization. As we age up, dual coding (of audio mnemonic backing up relatively simple visualization) becomes more effective than flashy visualization techniques (massive memory cities or equivalent).

Gender differences

I quote:

Psychological scientists measure the capacity of episodic memory in several ways, but one of the most common methods is to ask a test subject to read a list of words and then recall as many of the words as they can, either immediately or after a delay.

As you might expect, individuals differ greatly in their ability to recall a list of words. But in a general sense, (1) younger people perform better than older people on such tasks and (2) older women perform better than older men.

Or at least that’s what memory scientists believed until they read the findings of two recent studies done in non-Western countries. The studies—one in China and one in India—found that older men performed better than older women on tests of episodic memory.

The researchers’ most interesting discovery was that women outperformed men in countries that reject traditional gender-role attitudes but underperformed men in traditional gender-role societies.

So while gender differences are important, practicing memory skills and various brain gym techniques might be more important than innate abilities.

Emotional regulation

What makes older adults so good as mentors? Beyond experience and perspectives, with age we gain emotional regulation. I quote:

Older adults report better regulation and greater control over their emotions, fewer and shorter durations of experiencing negative affect, and less anger and less intense aversive reaction in response to interpersonal problem situations; in addition, in marital interactions, older couples report less negative affect in conflict situations.

What younger people perceive as wisdom might be wisdom, or it might be the effect of better emotional regulation and a more balanced response. We do not need to age to gain better emotional regulation. The relevant skills can be acquired, for example in relationship therapy, mindful meditation, semi-professional sports,  and many other situations.

Doing things slowly actually helps in emotional regulation, like griefing and recovering from depression. The processes take time. Handling the challenge step by step enables better adaptation than oscillating between frenzy and despair. ~10% recover from crisis empowered and report thriving significantly better than before the crisis.

Depression is worse with age

While we acquire better emotional regulation as we age, we also need it more.

1. More illness. This has to do with all sorts of degradation, from reduced metabolism and immune system functionality to lower sanitary capabilities due to reduced smell and sight, lower energy etc.

2. Greater social isolation and loneliness. As you grow older, friends and relatives move away. Some get sick. Others die. Making friends at age 80 is different than at 20.

3. Lesser financial resources. Pensioners are less likely to have employment prospects. Some aggregate investments over decades and are effectively millionaires. Others made mistakes or were unlucky.

The result is decreasing adaptation. Older people get brittle and have more reasons to grieve. Fortunately, life experience and improved emotional regulation partially offset the depressive tendencies.

I guess one of the main differentiators in old-age resilience is positive self-talk. Negative self-talk becomes increasingly toxic as we age.


So let us try to redefine the wisdom of old age.

  1. A lifetime of experience. History does not repeat itself but rhymes with itself. Understanding history, and having seen the consequences of various approaches and situations is important. For example, we may gain perspectives of other people of all ages and use these perspectives to find a creative solution.
  2. Improved semantic memory means a lot of general knowledge, and also motivational stories and anecdotes that can inspire.
  3. Better emotional regulation means fewer impulsive mistakes and more effective recovery from some crisis situations like grief.
  4. More brainpower dedicated to music also means better speeches, finding just the right tone in every given situation, and timing things more accurately.

Wisdom is not equal to intelligence. If anything, young people will solve visual puzzles and mathematical riddles better than older adults. Yet, intelligence is not correlated with focus on things that matter. Many smart people focus on things that are beyond their control and get depressed. Wise people with positive self talk will probably steer the focus toward better things, things they can control.

As you may have guessed, I agree with all three statements I put in the abstract. Getting older sucks. Older people are wise. Smart people are depressed.

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