Why are old people stupid?
March 21, 2006 10:33 AM   Subscribe

The recent stories about the difficulty our seniors have found in understanding the Medicare prescription benefit, coupled with continual reports of vehicular "issues" among the elderly, make me wonder about old people, and whether I will be just like them when I get there.

I realize this is kind of a crass question, but I'm sincere. If we take as a given that people of a certain advanced age tend toward things like poor driving, helplessness in the face of new things and resistance to change, what do we believe is the cause?

The biological degradation of the mind is largely to blame, of course. But is it also related to society and generations?

That is, do you think the current generation of 30-somethings - with our connectedness, our Internet savvy, the technological wonders that comfortably surround us, and our post-modern self-awareness - will be different as elderly folks than the ones we chuckle at today?

Or in the year 2050 will we still be reading stories of kindly, oblivious old gentlemen plowing their hovercrafts into fruit stands and cursing the new, complicated intergalactic tariff forms?
posted by Bud Dickman to Health & Fitness (39 answers total)
 
From the various non-in-depth reading I've done, the issue seems to be mostly that the older we get, the fewer new things we try. The fewer new things we try, the more "stale" or "out of shape" our brains get, and the harder new things become.

I don't think anyone in this generation is somehow immune from complacency and laziness. You have to keep challenging yourself mentally if you want to stay sharp.
posted by occhiblu at 10:39 AM on March 21, 2006


That is, do you think the current generation of 30-somethings - with our connectedness, our Internet savvy, the technological wonders that comfortably surround us, and our post-modern self-awareness - will be different as elderly folks than the ones we chuckle at today?

No. 30 years from now, all our snazzy internet know-how and postmodernism and what-not will just seem quaint compared to whatever new stuff the kids come up with. Look how radically different & revolutionary the hippies are now, who grew up with televisions & telephones & airline travel. Not so much. People get set in their ways because it's worked for them, and it's too much trouble & energy to change everything.

Old people will always act like old people, and young people will always act like young people. We're not special.
posted by designbot at 10:45 AM on March 21, 2006


Possibly we will have brain implants to keep us from going senile, but I wouldn't count on it. However, I would expect in 2050 nobody will drive their own cars anymore.

I'm 37 and I already notice signs of creeping mental deterioration. I can no longer remember telephone numbers after seeing them once, for example. I have to write them down or use the speed dial features in my phone, which is impossibly fiddly compared to just knowing the number. I used to get all bent out of shape when friends would misquote lines from a movie we just saw, but now I am quite unlikely to notice since I can no longer recall the exact wording of every line. I forget where I parked sometimes. I used to tell people who did so, rather snarkily, to "just think of where you were when you last got out of your car, and that's probably where it still is."

I would cry over the loss of my faculties, but fortunately the mental deterioration seems pretty soothing.

So yeah, I bet you will be just like today's elderly when you're that age. If you haven't noticed the signs already, you will soon enough.
posted by kindall at 10:45 AM on March 21, 2006


Curious how only two criteria are being used here to assess old people's stupidity.

I'm wondering if Bud Dickman understands the Medicare prescription benefit himself; in fact the assumption seems to be all young people understand it, and drive well; whereas no old people understand it, and they all drive poorly.

Seems to me this is a troll post, and it should be deleted.
posted by Rash at 10:50 AM on March 21, 2006


The examples cited in the question may not be the best, but the intended question seems good: the younger generation may think itself somehow smarter than the elderly, but is there any good reason to believe we'll be any different by the time we're 70+?
posted by rxrfrx at 11:00 AM on March 21, 2006


Seems to me this is a troll post, and it should be deleted.

I am not a troll. It was an honest question.

I myself do not drive perfectly, nor do I understand (I haven't tried) the prescription benefit.

This wasn't an attempt to bash senior citizens...the headline of my question was provocative and snarky because i thought that's what MeFi was most of the time.

I am simply wondering if the progression into old age, and the things that seem to accompany it, will become different as our lives change so dramatically (from technology, etc.)

If that's a troll post, then I misunderstand the word.
posted by Bud Dickman at 11:05 AM on March 21, 2006


Also: what I had in mind with the question wasn't so much the biological part - I know and assume that as I get older, my brain will wear out, and that will remain the case for the forseeable future generations.

What I was getting at was culture and generational change and if that makes any difference as we age.

For example: the self-awareness I mentioned earlier. It seems to me that my generation is much more self-aware than any before it. Our culture - the music, the TV shows, the movies, the MySpace pages - is basically a big mirror pointed right back at us.

In generations past, I believe people by and large were more other-directed. Having to kill your meal or make sure the crops didn't die kind of assured that.

Because of that, old age could kind of creep up on you. Before you knew it, you were old and feeble and wondering where things were.

Nowadays, our self-awareness is so high - I wonder if it will allow us to mark time and milestones more accurately, be more cognizant of what is happening to us, and as a result be "smarter" as we age than those currently in their golden years.
posted by Bud Dickman at 11:13 AM on March 21, 2006


Well, on the one hand perception, motor reflexes and short-term memory starts declining.

On the other hand, older people have a heck of a lot of experience and expertise they can leverage to a given task.

In general, there seems to be a bit of support for the view that staying mentally active and learning new things helps to mitigate or prevent these problems.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:15 AM on March 21, 2006


Having helped my elderly Mom with the new prescription benefit, I can tell you that it's very difficult to figure out, mostly because the government did a very poor job of explaining how to make the right choice for each individual.

As for driving, reaction times slow as we get older, and that's just the way of things.

Resistance to change is a generalization- my Mom learned to get on the internet at the age of 75.

It is unfortunate that our culture does not value the things that come with age- the increased capacity to love and accept love, the wisdom and humor (the more you've been there and done that, the more humor there is in it all).

I hope that you get to find out.
posted by puddinghead at 11:16 AM on March 21, 2006


It is unfortunate that our culture does not value the things that come with age- the increased capacity to love and accept love, the wisdom and humor (the more you've been there and done that, the more humor there is in it all).

I hope that you get to find out.


Argh!

I think I continue to be misunderstood. I do value people with experience, and I do look forward to the days when I can look back on a life well-lived and benefit from the things I have learned.

I shoulda left off the dumb examples of driving and Medicare. Those were just the things that got me thinking about this question - which, in its revised and truncated form, is this:

Will aging be a notably different process, because of cultural and generational differences, for people of my generation than it is for those currently in their later years?
posted by Bud Dickman at 11:21 AM on March 21, 2006


I'd always thought that we were judging older people by the physical appearances and not the mental ones.

I remember thinking about this same question in college. I had some really old professors. If you met them in person, they didnt seem so impressive. They kind of doddered around, had trouble keeping a fixed gaze and when they walked down the hall they reminded me of children.

However, if I then went and picked up a recent paper by one of these doddering children, I could tell that the astounding mind was still there - mental faculties and wisdom far beyond my little undergraduate mind.

I do think its true that the older professors always seemed to be the old guard in terms of defending ideas sometimes more often than they were proposing new ones. But part of this is natural too. We all have an exceptional affinity to the stuff we grew up with, the culture, the ideas and artifacts.

In these days of immersive, surround-sound 3-d gaming, for example, I still look back on Asteroids and Dig-Dug and Donkey Kong in arcades as the pinnacle of gaming and everything modern is just a loud re-tread of things that were invented then. Its the old person in me already appearing.
posted by vacapinta at 11:22 AM on March 21, 2006


The onus, in this example, is on the medicare bill. Not old people.
posted by birdie birdington at 11:27 AM on March 21, 2006


I'm a bit confused by the assumptions in your question. To some extent, it seems that if you're out "killing your meal," you're *more* likely to see the effects of aging (slower response time, loss of strength, failing eyesight) than if you spend your life relying on machines to be your memory and your strength. And your examples of "self-aware" seem a bit more like "navel gazing," in many ways -- we don't seem aware of the entire world around us, just ourselves, which again would seem to make adapting to future changes harder.

I don't think you're a troll, but you seem weirdly self-congratulatory about our generation's abilities, and I think if you stepped back a bit, you'd see we're not any more special than anyone else. The hippie example's a good one -- they "changed the world," were hyper-aware of their place in the grand scheme of things, and now...? Mental abilities all over the map, it seems.
posted by occhiblu at 11:30 AM on March 21, 2006


30 years from now, all our snazzy internet know-how and postmodernism and what-not will just seem quaint compared to whatever new stuff the kids come up with.

Yeah. By the time you're old, all your internet savvy and technological wonders are going to be old hat, too. Every generation since the Industrial Revolution has had its technological wonders, and has wound up bewildered to some extent by those of the next generation.

Plastics!

And snarky questions will inevitably reap snarky answers. Non-snarky questions may, also, but it's not inevitable.

[Omitted political reference to deliberately confusing Medicare benefits.]
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:36 AM on March 21, 2006


That is, do you think the current generation of 30-somethings - with our connectedness, our Internet savvy, the technological wonders that comfortably surround us, and our post-modern self-awareness - will be different as elderly folks than the ones we chuckle at today?

Any more than the 80 yr old who grew up in a severe economic Depression, witnessed the birth of modern abstract art and literature, of existentialism, of moving images on film, saw fascism sprouting inevitably all over the globe, went on to fight in World War 2 in the Pacific, saw ships wrecked by suicidal Kamikaze pilots and then learned about the creation of a mind-boggling new super-weapon called the atomic bomb which could annihilate an entire urban area?

Probably not.
posted by vacapinta at 11:42 AM on March 21, 2006


Look how radically different & revolutionary the hippies are now, who grew up with televisions & telephones & airline travel. Not so much.

That nails it. Every one of the last few American generations has believed it's way of life is so unique and special that they have nothing in common with previous generations. So you're already proceeding according to plan. Keep believing you're special until you're well into you're 30s, and you'll be right on track. Then you'll turn into your parents, and finally you'll become just like your grandparents.

Just like your body, your mind will start slowing down a bit every year once you turn 25, a change that's barely perceptible but relentlessly cumulative. First you'll have to start giving up activities that require immediate mental response, and eventually you'll slow down to the point where driving a car is too high-twitch for you.

But it's not all bad. You learn to stop depriving yourself of sleep and abusing your body, and you find you have more stamina. It's the same for your mind. If you're lucky, you'll make up in wisdom and tenacity what you lack in speed.

Culturally, you can probably expect your generation to try to fight against that process longer than previous ones. Technological optimism creates a lot of expectations and a lot of denial. The market for "mental Viagra" will be huge. Alzheimer's will replace cancer as the thing people fear most. It will become fashionable for middle-aged people to show that they can still cut it on the latest video game. They'll look just as foolish as the 45-year olds today who are getting plastic surgery, buying sports cars, and finishing triathlons to try to fight off the inevitable, instead of learning how to live it well.
posted by fuzz at 11:46 AM on March 21, 2006


[T]he intended question seems good: the younger generation may think itself somehow smarter than the elderly, but is there any good reason to believe that they are actually smarter?

Probably not.
posted by caddis at 11:46 AM on March 21, 2006


In generations past, I believe people by and large were more other-directed. Having to kill your meal or make sure the crops didn't die kind of assured that.…

Nowadays, our self-awareness is so high - I wonder if it will allow us to mark time and milestones more accurately, be more cognizant of what is happening to us, and as a result be "smarter" as we age than those currently in their golden years.


I would be more confident in our generation's ability to "mark time and milestones more accurately" if you didn't seem to believe that people born in the 1940's grew up during the hunter-gatherer era.
posted by designbot at 12:13 PM on March 21, 2006


I don't think you're a troll, but you seem weirdly self-congratulatory about our generation's abilities, and I think if you stepped back a bit, you'd see we're not any more special than anyone else.

I'd be self-congratulatory if I came to this board with an already-formed theory. But it was a question - a fanciful, ill-conceived, poorly worded question.

Sorry. Can I withdraw my question title?

Anyway, I don't believe I am special, nor do I think my generation is special. I get that every generation thinks it invented sex, and all that.

I just had a notion that all the stimulus and smoke and mirrors we surround ourselves with in the year 2006 might have an effect on how we deal with our aging process.

That's all.

P.S.: My statement about killing your meal and all that: I was basically saying that in previous generations, there has been more to worry about. Today, we have the luxury of introspection. And maybe that affects how we emotionally age.

Next time I think of a stupid question that came to my mind, remind me not to post it. :)
posted by Bud Dickman at 12:21 PM on March 21, 2006


I would be more confident in our generation's ability to "mark time and milestones more accurately" if you didn't seem to believe that people born in the 1940's grew up during the hunter-gatherer era.

Not sure where you're from, but my grandmother certainly didn't go to the grocery store or a restaurant for most meals.

Of course she didn't kill mammoths with a flint-tipped spear...but she also didn't have time to sit around and navel-gaze. There were chickens' necks to be wrung.
posted by Bud Dickman at 12:25 PM on March 21, 2006


Interestingly, no one has brought up the slew of neurotransmitters and hormones that are only now being isolated as incredibly significant to our bodies throughout the years.

What we call aging is largely a result of various elements within body processes that decline over time and how this decline fails those systems increasingly. Their decline affects all aspects of our physical and mental capacities, and so far while no one is claiming that simply by replacing them we will become immortal - wear and tear does have an impact too - but we could lead a more fulfilling life from end to end.

Of course on the dark side, environmental degredation is polluting and damaging these same neurotransmitters and hormones for our younger generations which are causing all sorts of new problems, I'm sure many of which we haven't yet determined.

I tend to believe that with clean, intelligently processed - or not processed at all - food from a wide variety of herbs, vegetables and fruits, as well as good exercise, we can help the body retain its youth and vigour a lot longer than the fast food outlets and cable companies would want us to know.
posted by iTristan at 12:28 PM on March 21, 2006


Right, iTristan. It's a different world than the one my grandmother grew up in, in so many ways.

Surely the environment, science and culture will make my aging experience different from hers.

Or perhaps, as has been suggested here, there's nothing new under the sun, and aging will always be aging.
posted by Bud Dickman at 12:31 PM on March 21, 2006


The recent thread on neurogenesis might interest you.

I think all I'm trying to say is that while it's true that "the environment, science and culture will make [your] aging experience different from hers," nothing's going to happen unless you *use* those tools at your disposal. Surrounding ourselves with 21st-century gadgets isn't any different than surrounding ourselves with 18th-century gadgets if our only reaction to them is "Hey, cool gadgets!"
posted by occhiblu at 12:49 PM on March 21, 2006


It's a different world than the one my grandmother grew up in, in so many ways.

Surely the environment, science and culture will make my aging experience different from hers.


I get the feeling that's been said in every generation, at least in the last hundred or so years. While I agree with you -- to a point -- I'm not sure it will be any ... more different? ... than previous generations.

What I mean is that the average Western lifespan not so long ago was less than 50. But with industrialization, vaccinations, antibiotics, etc., we've bumped that up to 70 or 80. I think we'll continue to progress on that. And we'll learn how to make those extra years useful. So yes, I think we may hold off death and some effects of aging longer than our parents and their parents... but just like they did, compared to their parents.
posted by SuperNova at 12:52 PM on March 21, 2006


Is there something inherent in your generation that wasn't in previous generations? No.
The more you disbelieve my answer, the more right it is. If you can't wrap your brain around that, you will by the time you're 40.

Is there some technology that's right on the horizon that will forever change how we age? Maybe.

Let's say that there is. Now you have a supply and demand problem. Who gets the drug (assuming its a drug) and who gets to decide? Assuming that it will take 10 years for the drug to become available, and another 10 years for it to reach the point where half the people that have access to it can afford it, I'm guessing you're stuck as much as the rest of us.

I don't think the internet will change the aging process one bit. Memories have been stored for ages. Books, drawings, journals, photos, videos, the internet is just another medium. It suffers the same fate of all the others. People get tired of the maintenance. Look at all the blogs that aren't kept up anymore. You end up with content only on special occassions. So maybe you won't absently flip through a leather bound family photo album when you're 80. But you'll most likely flip through some high-tech equivalent.
posted by forforf at 1:20 PM on March 21, 2006


Indeed, already I've experienced one part of my genetic predisposition which was to gain weight if I ate the wrong balance of food. I'd become was sliggish, fat and my light asthma became heavier.

Fast forward into my late 30's with a vastly changed diet, I'm now 30 pounds lighter and, asthma nearly undetectable.

The weight gain alone was something my parents couldn't avoid; even eating good quality, but poorly proportioned food.

Use the tools/knowledge at your disposal and the way your body responds may be much better than others before you - with similar genetic makeup - were able to get.
posted by iTristan at 1:20 PM on March 21, 2006


I think a higher percentage of people in this generation are more disposed to learning than in previous generations.

Let's say in my parents' generation, 60% of people would be content if their VCR blinked "12:00" for the rest of its life because they didn't bother figuring out how to set it.

If that's true -- and 60% is an arbitrary guess -- then I think only 40% of my generation would be okay with having their VCRs permanently blinking. Sixty percent would be willing to take five minutes to learn something that they'll really never use again.

That willingness to learn, even for small purposes, is not a huge change, and not a radical one; it's a pretty subtle shift, but it might make a visible difference.

Also, I know I really grew up with the Internet; I graduated from middle school in 2000, from high school in 2004. So as soon as I was old enough to start learning, really, there was an entirely new field for me to learn about. And now that I know a little about most internet stuff, along comes Web 2.0 (heh). I think that has made a lasting impression on me; I think I'll be more willing to learn about brand-new fields as they emerge, because that's a pattern that was set for me when I began learning. I think that'll become obvious in my close contemporaries -- not necessarily those who grew up having the Internet as it is now, or those who started learning HTML at 30. But that's certainly not a generation, and it's probably too small to be a measurable demographic.
posted by booksandlibretti at 1:49 PM on March 21, 2006


Sorry. Can I withdraw my question title?

How about the whole question.

What I can't understand is why this piece of crap is still here. Dickman starts out with the insulting proposition that members of a group of people are stupid. The question is stupid and its mere asking says something about the asker. It's premise is probably not correct so discussion which assumes the premise is of little value to AskMe. The whole thing is just a big mess which belongs in the delete bin.
posted by caddis at 1:58 PM on March 21, 2006


booksandlibretti, your comparison is off. The question is, what new technology will come along when you're your parents' age, and what percentage of your generation will bother putting five minutes into learning it?

We're more likely to fix the VCR because we don't see it as that foreign an object. Your parents might, for instance, still know how to fix the 8-track (or whatever) even if they're not messing with the VCR.
posted by occhiblu at 2:04 PM on March 21, 2006


Holy jeez...I forgot how difficult and often futile it is to try to join an existing online community. I shoulda lurked for another year or two to get the tone down just right.

I think my question - the poor choice of title notwithstanding - is a viable one. Some have agreed.

But good gravy...if you people are so humorless that you can't look beyond something I have apologized for and consider the question at its core, then...again, sorry. Delete it. Jeez.
posted by Bud Dickman at 2:13 PM on March 21, 2006


occhiblu, I'm not claiming that part to be the God-Given Truth or anything. It's just a hypothesis based on what I've seen, and we can't know the truth until these generations get older.

That said, though, Google claims the VCR was invented in 1971. Say it became popular by 1975 (I don't know, I wasn't there). If so, my parents were under 20 then -- and therefore, they should theoretically be familiar with it; it shouldn't be a kids-these-days newfangled gadget to them the way iPods and digital cameras are.

Besides, the VCR was just a handy example. My parents can't fix their old record player, either; that's my job too. :p
posted by booksandlibretti at 2:37 PM on March 21, 2006


I think part of it is the whole use it or lose it philosphy. People stop trying to learn new things. They know what they need to know to do their jobs and function at home and socially so they stop actively learning. I know a couple wickedly bright octogenarians and when you start listening to them it becomes obviously they've been researching and reading and trying stuff out their whole lives so when mobile phones or DVD players come out they handle it because they are used to learning.

Of course this could just be a chicken and egg thing too, people stop trying to learn stuff because it gets to hard to learn, what with the drool and everything.
posted by Mitheral at 3:05 PM on March 21, 2006


I teach technology (film editing) in an intense environment. Which means I have quite a bit of direct observation of older students.

As people age several factors seem to make 'everything' more difficult.

First, is that old information interferes with new.

We assume that new things are like old (and that works most of the time). But sometimes it doesn't...which leads to....

Getting frustrated. I find that when you get frustrated you get angry (often with yourself) for a lack of understanding. And the harder something feels, the more foreign, the more likely you get frustrated...

Which is linked to your interest. If you're interested in something, you're more interested in trying to figure it out.

The classic symptom (often from a parent is):
Can't you just tell me the steps to do what I need to know....rather, than would you explain how this works.

The response says "I want a solution" not, "I want to understand."

When you stop learning, you start dying.

Part of the problem is that as we age, we lose interest, become complacent, and get frustrated. Part of it is that our biological focus deteriorates.

Force your mind to keep working, force yourself to keep learning, you're likely to slow the deterioration. But yeah, most of us will get older/slower etc, and feel overwhelmed with the speed of life.
posted by filmgeek at 3:43 PM on March 21, 2006


The most intelligent, capable, thoughtful person I ever knew was a woman in her 80's, born nearly 100 years ago. She read Kundera, wrote books, & joined a writer's group at 80. She was born before cars, remembered the first one she ever saw. She bred a Westminster Dog Show winner and met the Roosevelts as a consequence; she married 3 times, once to a famous physicist; she has a nature preserve named after her. Her husband has a hall named after him. Could you outpace her at 90? I doubt it. She was born with wit, intelligence and marvelous genes. Sadly, her body failed her, and she died.

We are two components - our minds and our bodies. A fool at 90 is an old fool. Your generation is full of fools.So is mine. If medicine gives your generation the power to live to 150, there will be a lot of incredibly old, stupid people running around. Stupid people are never in short supply, they're generally full of themselves, and they all want to live forever.

Perhaps there will be a few, like my friend, who start off well and go the distance. There won't be many.

The saddest word in the English language is "modern," because nothing ever is.
posted by clarkstonian at 3:44 PM on March 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


Wow...so many thoughtful posts. Thanks.
posted by Bud Dickman at 6:25 PM on March 21, 2006


I keep in touch with one of my high school English teachers, who is well into his 70s. He's still busy researching his ancestors--at his request, I looked up the death certificate of a relative of his at the NYC archives a couple months ago. He's been on the internet for years, approaching it with cautious interest.

My conclusion is that because of genes or something else, some people remain curious about the world long after you would expect they should. Maybe you'll be one of those people. I hope I am.
posted by A dead Quaker at 6:42 PM on March 21, 2006


I think the acceleration of change may make the newer generations somewhat less inclined to turn into fossils before they die, simply because change itself becomes the norm. I may be optimistic because I'm nearly 50.

The understand vs. solve issue hits me the wrong way. I don't have time to 'understand' everything I might wish to use. When I was young, the understanding itself was fun. Now, not always. When I was young, I wanted to understand the tools. Today, I am aware that understanding tools takes time away from using them.

I think it was a good question. The wording and choice of examples bothered me not at all.
posted by Goofyy at 12:50 AM on March 22, 2006


We got our first VCR in the mid-80s, and we were the first family on the block to have one. (My friend's family got a BetaMax a few weeks later.) So I'd say 1975 is probably pushing it a bit for wide-spread adoption.

But again, I'm just arguing that an attitude of "we bother to learn new technologies now, so of course we'll keep learning them" ignores a lot of things about how people actually function in the world, and about how priorities and interests change over time.
posted by occhiblu at 4:04 PM on March 22, 2006


Back to college at 50 I discovered that I had a built in context that got in the way. It also affected my ability to remember the specifics of new information. When I was younger and still developing my world view, facts were much more sticky, more unique in effect. I can imagine this is common.

Good post anyway.
posted by pointilist at 11:26 PM on March 22, 2006


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