Firsthand—experiences with aging

As I age and get more forgetful, I wonder whether I make wiser or poorer choices. Native American and Asian cultures consider the elderly wise and treat them with respect. In contrast, in European and American culture old age is viewed as a time when mental faculties fade. An important question remains: what components of wisdom grow or decline in our later lives?

Over the past decade, gerontologists and social scientists have begun to study wisdom as multidimensional. For instance, in a popular TED Talk, Dilip Jeste, M.D., a geriatric neurophysicist, says the essence of wisdom is decisiveness, insight, social-emotional behavior, and tolerance. Researcher Jeanine Parisi and her associates consider the most important aspects of wisdom to be experience, social interaction, and generativity (multi-generational viewpoints). Sociologist Monika Ardelt defines the key components to be cognition, reflection, and affect.

From a review of the literature, I’ve concluded that there are three components or pillars of wisdom. Cognition encompasses reasoning, memory, problem-solving, creativity, decisiveness, crystalized intelligence, and procedural knowledge. Reflection includes perspective-taking, tolerance, openness, insight generation, growth production, generativity, balance of individual with common goods, and meaning-making. The social/emotion pillar consists of pro-social actions, social decision-making, facilitative coordination, empathy, and emotion management.        

Journey in wisdom

Across our lifetimes these elements can change. Most notable are changes in cognition, especially memory loss. So, it should not be surprising that with old age comes a decline in cognition; but many forget that old age also brings a greater repertoire of experiences. While we may lose memory, we gain both reflection and social/emotion skill across our silver-haired years.

Ardelt and her associates studied more than 14,000 persons in Germany. Looking at their life spans from age 20 to 90, the researchers found little difference in the overall wisdom trendline. However, when separating cognitive from social/emotion and reflection wisdom, they found a flat trendline for cognitive but a rising trendline for social/emotion and reflective wisdom.

Those of us in later life don’t need surveys to know that our wisdom grows with age. We know that our experience grows and from that we can nurture our perspectives and other noncognitive wisdom. Most important, we can share our wisdom to help younger generations. And from such mentoring, our noncognitive wisdom can expand even more. 

If you would like to share a firsthand experience related to health and aging, please contact Ron Anderson at [email protected].