Sex & Relationships

10 Facts About Growing Old That May Surprise You

They don't call them the golden years for nothing.

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No doubt you have heard the old adage that there are only two certainties in life, death and taxes. There is a third certainty, of course: aging. From the moment we are born until the instant before we die, we are getting older. The world may be meant for the young, but it is the old who are increasingly populating it. There are over 45 million people who are 65 or older in the United States, almost 15% of the population. By 2040, that figure is expected to grow to over 21%. Women outnumber men in this demographic, 127 older women to every 100 older men.

Not only are we getting older, we are living longer as old people. In 2014, there were more than 72,000 men and women age 100 or over, more than double the number in 1980. Babies born in 2014 can expect to make it to almost 79, three decades more than their counterparts a century ago. In all of human history, of all the people who ever lived to be 65 years old, half of them are alive today.

Despite the fact that we are surrounded by old people, there is much we don’t understand about aging. We seem to fear the day when we look in the mirror to discover we have joined the ranks of the old, with sagging bodies, turkey necks and aching joints. But fear not! There is much to learn about aging; sure there are some downsides, but surprisingly, there's a lot to look forward to. Here are 10 facts about aging that will cheer you up (and perhaps give you pause).

1. You are probably going to be happy.

In 2008, a Gallup survey was done with more than 340,000 participants, ranging in age from 18 to 85. The participants were asked questions about their sense of well-being, satisfaction with life in general, and whether they had recently experienced joy, happiness, stress and sadness. The results should make anyone fearing old age a bit less afraid. Happiness, it turns out, is a U-shaped curve.

A study based on the survey, published in 2010, told us we are quite happy when we are young; we steadily become less happy as we age; and by the time we hit 50, as life’s issues take their toll, we feel at our lowest. But then, like a tree flowering in spring, we gradually start to get happier. We worry less, get angry less often, are less sad, and experience joy and happiness more than we have since we were teenagers. By the time we are 85, we are happier than when we were 18.

The reasons for this increased euphoria as we age are unclear. “It could be that there are environmental changes, or it could be psychological changes about the way we view the world, or it could even be biological — for example brain chemistry or endocrine changes,” Arthur A. Stone, the lead author of the study, told the New York Times. So if you are feeling cranky and miserable these days, cheer up. You’re getting older.

2. Your brain may be slower but experience will make up the deficit.

Hard to believe, but there’s every chance you will be sharper than that young whippersnapper sitting in the next cubicle. A study of Canadian air traffic controllers (where the mandatory retirement age is higher than in the U.S.) at the University of Illinois found that older controllers were every bit as good at their jobs as the younger controllers. While the older controllers were a bit slower performing simpler cognitive tasks, when called on to perform tasks directly related to their job, they were the equal of the younger controllers.

"Despite the fact that these old controllers are not super-people in a cognitive sense, they still do really well on complex simulated air traffic control tasks that are representative of what they do every day. They do well, one would surmise, because they've gained decades of knowledge in their profession that's allowed them to offset the costs of not having quite the memory they used to have, and certainly not being able to respond as quickly as they once could," said Art Kramer, a University of Illinois psychology professor who conducted the study. As we grow older, we build up what is known as crystallized intelligence, i.e. expertise gained from our years of experience and practice.

3. You will be enjoying your job more than ever.

The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted a study that concluded that nine out of 10 adults 50 and older were happy with their jobs. Because of their age, older adults have already reached many of their career goals, reached near peak salary, and have become expert in their skills. Due to their experience, they are often the go-to person when their younger colleagues have a question. This in turn generates a greater sense of respect. Job satisfaction is doubly important, because other studies have shown that the longer you work, the longer your life will be.

4. The issues you care about will be taken more seriously.

In 2012, almost 72% of eligible adults 65 years and older actually turned out to vote. This compares with about 58% for the population as a whole. As the percentage of older folks increases, their vote will count even more, and if there is anything a politician wants more than a vote, it hasn’t been found yet. So as you age, it is likely that politicians will be courting your vote by addressing the issues you care about most. Your voice will be heard.

5. Your sex life doesnt go away; in fact, it may get better.

It is true that the older we get, the more issues we may encounter in the bedroom. For women, the problems may be related to menopausal and post-menopausal vaginal dryness. For men, it's the inability to sustain an erection. But both of these problems can usually be addressed medically, and meanwhile, many studies have shown that one's satisfaction with sex actually increases with age.

One such study noted that, “61% of all women in this cohort were satisfied with their overall sex life. Although older age has been described as a significant predictor of low sexual satisfaction, the percentage of…sexually satisfied women actually increased with age, with approximately half of the women over 80 years old reporting sexual satisfaction almost always or always.” This confirmed an earlier study by the National Council on Aging which concluded, “Seventy-four percent of the sexually active men and 70% of the sexually active women reported being as satisfied or even more satisfied with their sexual lives than they were in their 40s.” 

6. You will be far more relaxed.

A poll commissioned by the American Psychological Association found that adults over the age of 65 were far less stressed-out than any other age group. Three out of four oldsters reported a state of “very positive mental health,” and were not particularly worried about the usual stress factors of money, housing, work or family. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the age group that experienced the highest level of stress was 35-49 years old, where six in 10 adults reported high levels of stress.

7. If you’ve made it this far, your marriage will be stronger than ever.

A California study of 156 middle-aged and older married couples found that once people make it through the first 15 years of marriage, they are likely in for smooth sailing the rest of the way. In fact, marriages grow stronger and more satisfying. The stresses of middle age have dissipated. As outlined above, older couples have learned how to relax (especially since the kids have left the nest), communicate better and negotiate conflicts (see #9). And that’s all good, because studies have also shown a strong marriage leads to better mental and physical health, with fewer of the chronic conditions older people often fall prey to.

8. You won’t be as wrinkled as you imagine, if you don’t smoke or sunbathe now.

The two major environmental causes of wrinkles are sunshine and cigarettes. So quit now and use sunblock and you’ll be basking in compliments about how young you look when you no longer are.

9. You will be better at navigating conflicts.

A University of Michigan study was conducted to see which age group was more adept at finding the sweet spot when it came to settling conflicts. The study found that, “relative to young and middle-aged people, older people make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.” In other words, with age comes wisdom. The study suggested it was worth serious consideration to, “assign older individuals to key social roles involving legal decisions, counseling, and intergroup negotiations.”

10. One of the greatest dangers in old age is injury from falling, but there is a way to minimize that.

Researchers have found that the fear of falling often causes the very thing people are afraid of. Up to 50% of older people have expressed this fear. For many, the fear leads to inactivity, which itself can lead to depression, poor muscle tone or drinking, which in turn leads to falling. The solution? Stop being afraid of falling. Instead, voice your concerns, speak to your doctor (preferably a geriatric doctor), and learn the best strategies to minimize your chances of falling.

OK, it’s not all kumbaya when we get older. Income levels obviously have an effect on one's condition (one in seven adults over 65 live in poverty, with women and minorities carrying the brunt of that statistic). More than 5 million older adults are living with Alzheimer’s disease (although there is some evidence that keeping one's brain active can ward this off). Age discrimination is a real thing. And of course, aches and pains and frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom may all be part of the landscape. Still, all in all, there is much to look forward to. They don’t call them the golden years for nothing.

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history.