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Healthy Aging

Older and Wiser

We are all familiar with the adage grow "older and wiser," but this month we will ask the question does wisdom lead to older age, not does age lead to wisdom. When we define wisdom and compare the characteristics of wisdom we can answer the question: do the traits seen in wisdom lead to longevity?


None other than the great philosopher Mark Twain opined: "The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd druther not." This wisecrack is actually found in The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain, and though humorous, repeats the conventional wisdom often found in this column. The online Collins English Dictionary defines wisdom as "the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight." Using this definition, one can readily understand Mark Twain's quip. We have knowledge about what is healthful, we understand what we are supposed to do and if we use common sense and do the right things we will remain healthy. Eat well and exercise even when it doesn't taste good or feel good; do this and you are well on your way to a longer, healthier life.

The Science of Age and Wisdom

This is not the end to the discussion about longevity and wisdom. There is actually some science regarding this and Phyllis Korkkimarch wrote in the March 13, 2014 New York Times a fascinating story entitled "The Science of Older and Wiser."

The first thing that we acknowledge is that just because we are older we are not necessarily wiser. Wisdom as mentioned above is demonstrated by learning from experience and doing the "right" thing when faced with important choices. How many people do we know who are up in age and do the wrong things, whether it is regarding health decisions or any of the other number of choices they are faced with? Older people do not all have wisdom and the older one is, not necessarily the wiser.

Another important aspect of wisdom is that it is not synonymous with intelligence. People old or young can have a high intelligence, meaning they can score well on IQ tests and other examinations, but they may lack the wisdom to live a longer, better life. We all know countless numbers of very smart people who make dumb decisions about health and other matters. So wisdom is independent of intelligence.

Does Wisdom Lead to Longer Life?

Korkkimarch in her New York Times article says: "Most psychologists agree that if you define wisdom as maintaining positive well-being and kindness in the face of challenges, it is one of the most important qualities one can possess to age successfully..." This is, of course, the application of wisdom in every day life and the result is a longer, healthier life. There is a body of knowledge that shows that self-absorption or preoccupation is not wise. True wisdom is learning to be objective in the face of adversity and the ability to curb negative emotions and focus on larger ramifications than the immediate challenge. Monika Ardelt of the University of Florida is quoted by Korkkimarch as saying "Wise people are able to accept reality as it is, with equanimity." In other words, the fight or flight urges are resisted in the wise person who ages. The bulk of science demonstrates that the wise person is master of themselves and also interested in the welfare of others. Wise people are tolerant of different points of view since they have learned that there are few absolutes in life. Wise people know that there can be two sides to every story: this makes them less emotionally worked-up. As we age and have good and bad experiences, make good and bad choices, the wise person can profit from them, still learn from them, and pass this wisdom on to others.

Finally, the aging process itself becomes a test. The wise person will fully understand the new limitations that come as our age progresses and health declines and welcome each new day no matter the circumstances. Poetry helps us understand this: today's scientists would say that Dylan Thomas had it all wrong when he wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old Age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

It is wisest to enjoy the twilight as we age, admire the sunset and share the time with those around us with the dignity that wisdom brings to all. Alfred Lord Tennyson got it right:

Twilight and evening bell

    And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell,

    When I embark;

The Bottom Line

Not everyone will grow older and wise, but those who gain wisdom will grow older - this is what the prevailing opinion of experts is - so take life as it comes and be open to the lessons and apply them even if "you'd druther not."