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Out of adversity can come growth opportunities


One of the by products of CoVID-19 is the concept of the new normal which is anything but. Out with the old and in with the new has positive connotations but for some this degree of change and uncertainty has the potential to be overwhelming.

The other possibility is to use the elements of belonging, resilience, and other strengths to deal with the opportunities these unusual conditions have created to accept, understand, and grow.

Ironically, if you Google the question ‘when do I stop growing’ the results suggest that it all comes to a halt sometime after puberty.

This perspective suggests decades of ‘non growth’ await people as they age which is clearly NOT the case. Where does that leave people who are solidly invested in ageing and wellbeing? Clearly, the ‘thinking’ about growing in relation to age needs reconsideration. Life is not over until it is over…and even then, the next ‘phase’ may be a completely new adventure.

Even as certain mental skills decline with age, the mind gets sharper in relation to a number of vitally important abilities. Such as multi-tasking, dealing with social conflicts, imagining different points of view, thinking of multiple resolutions, and suggesting compromises.

As people age, they devolve from having regrets and generally gravitate toward happiness. Sadness, anger, and fear also become less pronounced. This suggests, in economic terms at least, growth doesn’t have to be the primary goal. Rather sustaining wellbeing and the notion of being and having enough.

Researcher Helen Fields1 noted: We have a seriously negative stereotype of the 70s and beyond. That stereotype is typically incorrect.

In terms of brain development and mental growth there are a variety of different growth areas and opportunities that are relevant throughout all facets and stages of ageing. Older people get better and better at a variety of tasks that psychologists lump into a category called crystallized intelligence2.

Crystallized intelligence refers to the accumulation of knowledge, skills, and abilities that have been practiced through repetition. Vocabulary resists decline and continues to improve at least through middle age. Other well-practiced skills such as arithmetic improve through middle age as well, and are unlikely to decline, as you grow older.

A study from Harvard Medical School3 concurs

Their findings: Scientists used to think that brain connections developed at a rapid pace in the first few years of life, until you reached your mental peak in your early 20s. Your cognitive abilities would level off at around middle age, and then start to gradually decline.

We now know this is not true. Instead, scientists now see the brain as continuously changing and developing across the entire life span. There is no period in life when the brain and its functions just hold steady. Some cognitive functions become weaker with age, while others actually improve.

There are some neurological changes that have different implications.

Some brain areas, including the hippocampus, shrink in size. The myelin sheath that surrounds and protects nerve fibres wears down, which can slow the speed of communication between neurons. Some of the receptors on the surface of neurons that enable them to communicate with one another may not function as well as they once did. These changes can affect your ability to encode new information into your memory and retrieve information that is already in storage.”

On the other hand, the branching of dendrites increases, and connections between distant brain areas strengthen. These changes enable the aging brain to become better at detecting relationships between diverse sources of information, capturing the big picture, and understanding the global implications of specific issues.

Perhaps this is the foundation of wisdom. It is as if, with age, your brain becomes better at seeing the entire forest and worse at seeing the leaves.


1What is So Good About Growing Old | Science | Smithsonian Magazine
2Fluid vs. Crystallized Intelligence: What's the Difference? (thoughtco.com)
3Over nearly 80 years, Harvard study has been showing how to live a healthy and happy life – Harvard Gazette; and Train your brain - Harvard Health

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Date published: June 2022

To be reviewed: June 2025