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Joe Biden at Age 78

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Today, even while wishing President-elect Biden a happy birthday, some wonder: At age 78, does he have—and will he sustain for four years—the energy, mental acuity, and drive to excel in his new role? Or, as he approaches 80, will he embody his opponent’s caricature of “Sleepy Joe”—as someone not to be trusted with the cognitive demands of national and world leadership?

Mr. President-elect, I empathize. I, too, turned 78 this fall. So on behalf of you and all of us late-70s folks, let me shine the light of psychological science on our capacities.

First, people should understand that the more we age, the less age predicts our abilities. Knowing that James is 8 and Jamal is 18 tells us much about their differences. Not so with two adults who similarly differ by a decade. Many a 78-year-old can outrun and outthink a 68-year-old neighbor.

It’s true that we late-70s folks have some diminishing abilities. Like you, Mr. President-elect, I can still jog—but not as fast or far. The stairs we once bounded up have gotten steeper, the newsprint smaller, others’ voices fainter. And in the molasses of our brain, memories bubble more slowly to the surface: We more often experience brain freezes as we try to retrieve someone’s name or the next point we were about to make.

Yet with a lifetime’s accumulation of antibodies, we also suffer fewer common colds and flus than do our grandchildren. Physical exercise, which you and I regularly do, not only sustains our muscles, bones, and hearts; it also stimulates neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells and neural connections. The result, when compared with sedentary folks like your predecessor, is better memory, sharper judgment, and minimized cognitive decline.

Moreover, we either retain or grow three important strengths:

Crystallized intelligence. We can admit to experiencing what researchers document: Our fluid intelligence—our ability to reason and react speedily—isn’t what it used to be. We don’t solve math problems as quickly or learn new technologies as readily, and we’re no match for our grandkids at video games.

But the better news is that our crystallized intelligence—our accumulated knowledge and the ability to apply it—crests later in life. No wonder many historians, philosophers, and artists have produced their most noteworthy work later in life than have mathematicians and scientists. Anna Mary Robertson Moses (“Grandma Moses”) took up painting in her 70s. At age 89, Frank Lloyd Wright designed New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. At age 94, my psychologist colleague Albert Bandura has just co-authored yet another article. Perhaps our most important work is also yet ahead?

Wisdom. With maturity, people’s social skills often increase. They become better able to take multiple perspectives, to offer helpful sagacity amid conflicts, and to appreciate the limits of their knowledge. The wisdom to know when we know a thing and when we do not is born of experience.

Working at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute, psychologist Paul Baltes and his colleagues developed wisdom tests that assess people’s life knowledge and judgments about how to conduct themselves in complex circumstances. Wisdom “is one domain in which some older individuals excel,” they report.  “In youth we learn, in age we understand,” observed the 19th-century novelist Marie Von Ebner-Eschenbach.

Stable emotionality. As the years go by, our feelings mellow. Unlike teens, who tend to rebound up from gloom or down from elation within an hour, our highs are less high and our lows less low. As we age, we find ourselves less often feeling excited or elated. But our lives are also less often disrupted by depression.

We late-70s people are better able to look beyond the moment. Compliments produce less elation; criticisms, less despair. At the outset of my career, praise and criticism would inflate and deflate my head. A publication might have me thinking I was God’s new gift to my profession, while a rejection led me to ponder moving home to join the family business. With experience, both acclaim and reproach become mere iotas of additional feedback atop a mountain of commentary. Thus, when responding to the day’s slings and arrows, we can better take a big-picture, long-term perspective.

Mr. President-elect, I understand these things, as I suspect you do, too. When in my 60s, I assumed—wrongly—that by age 78, I would no longer have the energy to read, to think, to write. Instead, I take joy in daily entering my office at a place called Hope. I relish each day learning something new. I find delight in making words march up a screen. And I’m mellower, as it takes more to make me feel either ecstatic or despondent.

And you? Will you, as a newly minted 78-year-old, show your age? Yes, that jog up to the podium will surely slow. You will likely more often misspeak or forget a point. Your sleep will be more interrupted. But you will also benefit from the crystallized intelligence that comes with your lifetime’s experience. You can harness the wisdom that comes with age. And you can give us the gift of emotional maturity that will enable you, better than most, to navigate the “battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses.”

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or follow him on Twitter @DavidGMyers).

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).