We assume that it’s all downhill after 40 in terms of health and energy, but mental, emotional and even physical powers can improve with the years, as Lucy Fry explains
1 Self-consciousness finally disappears
Researchers from the University of Basel in Switzerland found that self-esteem peaks at around the age of 60. As you get older, you find that those little things that used to make you anxious – attending a party alone or fighting your corner with your boss – are no longer reasons to fret. You’re confident enough to feel OK about feeling (or looking) different, so it can be a time when originality flourishes. Many women view their 50s and 60s as a time of expanding horizons and fresh fulfilment because they are happy to be themselves and less likely to feel envious of others. In a survey (by P&G’s website Victoria) of women aged 50-65, three out of five said they had more lust for life, 81 per cent were happy with their self-image and nearly two-thirds felt more fulfilled than when they were younger. Think of the ageing process as a stairway, urged actress Jane Fonda in her 2011 TED Talk: we keep going up and the view gets better.
2 Your skin gets better as you slow down
We worry about the risk of muscles withering, skin crumpling and ailments tripling once we move into our 40s, 50s and beyond. But some things actually improve with age. First, you can look forward to fewer spots, says skin expert Kelly Saynor (renewaesthetics.co.uk). ‘The sebaceous glands produce less oil as you get older,’ she says – a welcome relief for acne sufferers. And given that tiredness, stress and pollution are among the major causes of a haggard complexion, having more downtime (consequences of retirement and children leaving home) will do wonders for your skin. Also, the discs in your back become less ‘bouncy’, so the likelihood of suffering a slipped disc, for example, is reduced: ‘This risk is highest at 35 and drops off after 50,’ says sports chiropractor and founder of ActiveBacks (activebacks.com) Andrew Martin. ‘The key to good spinal health in later years is to stay active, eat healthily and ensure you use your back muscles.’
3 Stamina and willpower replace strength
It’s true that physical strength, speed and power decrease with age, but studies show that the rate at which this happens is largely a question of lifestyle. Professor Greg Whyte, a physical activity expert, says, ‘For hormonal reasons people tend to peak physically at 35-40, but it’s hardly a precipitous drop after that, provided you follow a regular – sensible – exercise programme and, crucially, ensure you get enough sleep and space between sessions [because we take longer to recover as we age].’ Ballet legend Dame Gillian Lynne, now 91, released a fitness DVD at the age of 88. Put simply: use it or lose it. Besides, ‘as people get older they develop the mental aptitude to push themselves harder,’ says John Brewer, professor of sports science at St Mary’s University. ‘Older people are good at endurance because they’re more committed and mindful,’ explains Whyte. ‘You can’t buy maturity. Our ability to cope with pressure tends to improve with age.’ Comedian Eddie Izzard, 55, ran 27 marathons in as many days in South Africa in 2016, and the oldest participant in last year’s London Marathon was 88-year-old Iva Barr.
4 Motivation increases and focus improves
There’s a common assumption that brainpower inevitably reduces with age – not so. An investigation at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin suggested that older adults’ cognitive performance – including memory and speed of grasping tricky concepts – was more consistent across several days than that of their younger counterparts. It’s all down to their experience, the study found. The older adults had figured out strategies required to complete a task, had consistently high motivation levels and managed to maintain balanced daily routines as well as stable moods. Another study found that people between 60 and 82 were almost as sharp in the first hours of the morning as those aged 19 to 30. But you have to appreciate and exercise your mental assets, as with your physical ones, to get the most from them in later life. ‘Cognitive function doesn’t automatically decline,’ says Dr Lynne Corner, a gerontologist at Newcastle University – as long as you keep ‘active, stimulated and interested’. This could mean anything from challenging yourself with a new job or skill to staying connected and involved with family and friends.
5 You become more positive and adventurous
Getting older is traditionally considered synonymous with cantankerousness – but many people actually become brighter and more bushy-tailed. In fact, a study by the American Psychological Association spanning four generations found that the older people got the more positive their outlook became. And the more adventurous: the days of sitting out retirement in an easy chair are over and many pensioners now opt to take ‘grey gap years’ or head back into education. Travel company Discover Adventure recently reported the biggest overall growth in bookings from customers aged 50-60, and Saga (which specialises in holidays for the over-50s) has launched trips to adventurous destinations such as Colombia, Uzbekistan and Ethiopia in response to customer demand.
6 You are calmer and more contented
The thing about older people is that they’re more likely to have been there, done that and lived to tell the tale. This makes them generally more peaceful and resilient, quicker to recover from setbacks and regain perspective. This can, in part, be circumstantial, says integrative psychotherapist Hilda Burke (hildaburke.co.uk), as older people can often look forward to a life less burdened by responsibility. ‘Between their late 30s and early 50s people often carry a lot of stress, perhaps juggling the most senior job of their lives with children who are still going through school or university,’ says Burke. Then again, this is also an age when many face the challenge of looking after elderly parents, so perhaps it’s just that, as suggested by numerous studies, we’re more likely to count our blessings as we get older. And a 2003 study by psychologist Dr Robert Emmons found gratitude to be connected to all sorts of health benefits, making us happier, more forgiving and less frequently ill.
7 Friendships deepen and you are less argumentative
Once you’re past your mid-30s you start to become a little pickier about your friends, and it continues as you age. It’s partly about recognising that we won’t be around for ever, that time is precious and that we need to be careful choosing who to spend it with. Mortality is a great motivator: looking around at our many acquaintances (not to mention Facebook ‘friends’), the penny drops that sometimes less is more. We don’t make a big song and dance about falling out with them; we simply cull unnecessary connections, and the quality of those friendships we choose to keep deepens and improves. We also spend less time becoming irritated with friends and loved ones. ‘As people age and mellow it’s possible to simply enjoy each relationship for what it is,’ says Professor Judith Sixsmith, leader of the ageing research centre at Northampton University. ‘The niggles that tended to spark arguments early on in life don’t seem to matter quite so much. It’s all about perspective…also known as wisdom.’
8 Sex becomes better and more meaningful
Contrary to the stereotypical idea that sex drive drastically diminishes beyond midlife, a 2015 study showed that there was just one small dip – at around 60 – in the importance placed on sexual attraction, and nothing further. ‘If there is a sexual issue then there’s often something else behind it, such as depression, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, which all affect sexual function,’ says Mary Clegg, a psychotherapist specialising in sex and relationships (maryclegg.co.uk). ‘It is correct that women hit their official sexual peak around 35,’ she continues. ‘But who measures that and what by? What does it mean to be at one’s peak? Yes, libido declines as we get older because of oestrogen and testosterone changes, but we certainly don’t expect it to disappear, and the menopause doesn’t always result in lowered sexual appetite. Older people won’t have sex on a nightly basis, but what they have is a quality experience. A lot of them appreciate sex more and are more loving towards their partner because of their increased awareness of mortality.’