Experience and Wisdom — The Benefits of An Aging Brain

Two women discussing looking at a tablet together in an office
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You might take older adults’ advice about managing money or working through problems with people. After all, their sheer time on the planet gives them more experience to learn from.

But would you trust an older person on tasks like estimating distances or the steepness of a hill? A study says you can — for the same reason.

Researchers from Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, asked college students and people from the larger community to indicate the slant of three hills on campus that ranged from 4.5 degrees to 22.5 degrees. Despite factors such as declining eyesight that might reduce their performance, older people were more accurate.

“Whereas all of us see hills as much steeper than they actually are, the older adults in our study tended to give lower, more accurate estimates of the slants of the hills,” says Frank H. Durgin, professor of psychology and director of the Perception and Cognition Laboratory at Swarthmore.

The explanation is simple. “People who ski or who have a sloped driveway installed or who have more life experiences involving hills, in general, have the opportunity to become aware that hills look steeper than they are,” Durgin says. “So older people are more likely to have come to know this just because they have had more time to have more experiences.”

Could these phenomena apply to other areas of knowledge and expertise? Probably. And it may be empowering to know that “by virtue of a long life, they are likely to know things that other people may not know,” Durgin says.

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This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide any expert, professional or specialty advice or recommendations. Readers are urged to consult with their medical providers for all questions.

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