Senior citizens have earned the patience, wisdom, and experience that comes with growing old. In this Psychiatric Times article, Mindpath Health’s Rashmi Parmar, MD, discusses why well-being increases with age and what we can learn from our elders.
Senior citizens sit at the center of life’s oldest paradox. For many, the closer they come to death, the more their emotional well-being seems to increase. After a lifetime of losing loved ones, suffering defeats, and experiencing physical decline, older adults still manage to take life’s punches in stride.
Resilience with aging is what gives seniors an edge. How they have adapted to the aging process speaks to their incredible resilience. And it begs the question: What can the rest of us learn from them?
The Neurobiology of Resilience
Resilience is the ability to quickly recover from stress, whether physical, mental, or emotional.
Efforts by neuroscience to study why some people are more resilient than others have generally led to elusive answers. For example, a study observed brain images of people who had suffered abuse as children. The intent was to compare brain changes between those who went on to develop psychopathology as adults and those who developed resilience. Surprisingly, brain changes associated with maltreatment were noticed equally in both groups of people, whether or not they exhibited psychiatric symptoms. The authors speculated that there may be other molecular alterations or neurobiological changes that helped them adapt to stress.
Resilience is thought to involve three main brain regions: the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. Research indicates that resilient people have greater connectivity between areas of the prefrontal cortex to the areas of the brain linked to emotions. Their hippocampi and amygdalae are less stimulated.
In addition to neurobiology, genetics, and environment, resilience is shaped by other factors including personality, temperament, physical fitness, and social support. All of this can shape how we react to stress and whether we view it as challenging or threatening. Manageable stress can hone and improve our performance, while situations experienced as threatening may significantly impact one’s physical and mental health.
Whether our resilience level is genetically endowed or something that is learned has long been the subject of debate. It may be a mix of the two. There is strong evidence to suggest that strategies can be employed to build the muscle of resilience.
The lifecycle of resilience
With an inheritance range of 33% to 53%, resilience appears to be passed down through generations. It is strongest when nurtured at an early age and modeled by parents and caregivers. Because of their fragility, children exposed to higher levels of stress are more susceptible to psychiatric vulnerability, which explains why most mental illnesses are established by age 24. The stronger the social network and access to resources at an early age, the better children can stock up on valuable coping skills for adulthood.
Today’s senior citizens were born at the beginning of an era of unprecedented technology, global connection, and warfare. Those born in the 1920s were the first to enjoy cars, telephones, and movies. Many endured financial insecurities during the Great Depression, and everyone watched as Hitler drew the world into madness and World War II.
As the United States recovered, the Baby Boomer generation grew up. Born between 1946 and 1964, they would go on to become the largest living adult generation in the United States, influencing everything from the Civil Rights Movement to Social Security reform. They witnessed the Korean and Vietnam wars, the assassination of a president, and a Cold War that hung a shadow of fear over everyday life. The fact that they have seen and experienced so much explains why 90% of seniors have experienced at least one traumatic event during their lives. It also helps explain their impressive resilience.
And yet, even with this rich experience, a senior’s resilience can become brittle. Negative perspectives and a resistance to growing old can work against them. They may become overwhelmed with loneliness and sorrow. Losing spouses and friends, seeing family members less and less, and disengaging from activities can be discouraging experiences for anyone.
Keeping the brain engaged is key to building resilience. By seeking out new challenges and activities, seniors can take their resilience to the next level by developing wisdom.
Wisdom is more strongly associated with life satisfaction than physical health, finances, socioeconomic status, social involvement, physical environment, or age. Among older hospice patients and nursing home residents, wisdom is more connected to their sense of well-being than it is among other, healthier seniors.
Ultimately, wisdom is what allows seniors to make sense of their paradox. It guides and protects them through the fear and hardship of life, comforting to the very end.
Read the full Psychiatric Times article with sources.