With age really DOES come wisdom: Scientists prove older people are less impulsive
By Jenny Hope
Last updated at 7:13 PM on 24th June 2010
Older people are less likely to be hot-headed
Wisdom really does increase with age, say scientists.
Although the brain slows down, this simply helps older people to develop greater insight which helps them cope with the problems of life and take on new challenges.
Unlike hot-headed youngsters, elderly brains are less ruled by brain chemicals that fuel emotion and impulse, claim scientists.
As a result, older people have slower responses which are more thoughtful and 'wiser'.
Studies involving 3,000 Californians aged between 60 and 100 and MRI brain scans show that what older people lose in reaction times, they make up for in better decision-making.
Professor Dilip Jeste, from the University of California at San Diego, said wisdom was a unique human mix of intelligence and spirituality which could be hard-wired into the human brain as an evolutionary tool to extend lifespan.
Prof Jeste said older people were less affected by the brain chemical dopamine, which helps signals pass between neurons and is involved in the reward system of the brain.
He said: ‘The fact that older people are slower to respond than younger people is widely seen as a disadvantage. But that's not always the case.
‘The elderly brain is less dopamine-dependent, making people less impulsive and controlled by emotion.
‘Older people are also less likely to respond thoughtlessly to negative emotional stimuli because their brains have slowed down compared to younger people.
‘This, in fact is what we call wisdom,’ he told the Royal College of Psychiatrists' International Congress in Edinburgh.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans had identified four brain regions that contribute to wisdom - the amygdala, the left pre-frontal cortex, the medial pre-frontal cortex and the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex, said Prof Jeste.
Older people have a higher level of activity in these regions than younger people - as confirmed by scanning - which results in their wiser judgements, he added.
Prof Jeste said scans also showed the human brain never stopped being able to grow and change which means it is possible for older people to learn new skills.
He said: 'Probably the most exciting breakthrough in the last decade has been the finding that neuroplasticity, the ability to generate neurones and synapses, continues throughout an individual's life.'
He added that older people should gain confidence from the knowledge that they can become sharper and develop new skills in older age.
He said: 'We know from structural MRIs that the brain's hardware changes when people take up juggling.
‘Within three months, studies show that there is a significant change in the structure of the brain in the region that involves perceptual anticipation.'