How Creative Elders Invest Their Late-Life Inheritance

In Get Low , veteran screen actor Robert Duval adds yet another riveting performance to a distinguished filmogrophy that includes To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies, The Great Santini, Lonesome Dove, Apocalypse Now and of course The Godfather trilogy . Now almost 80, how does Duval keep doing it?

Recent research confirms that most of us can reach age 88, barring accident or an unhealthy lifestyle. And though dementia may lurk, the good news is that our brains may actually improve as we age -- a welcome late-life inheritance.

An emerging body of research shows that a surprising array of mental functions hold up well into old age, while others actually get better.

Vocabulary improves, as do other verbal abilities such as facility with synonyms and antonyms. Older brains are packed with more “expert knowledge”… They also store more “cognitive templates,” or mental outlines of generic problems and solutions that can be tapped when confronting new problems…

Where once it took hours of methodical scrutiny to understand a prospectus, for instance, older lawyers and investment bankers can zoom in on crucial sections and fit them into what they already know.

While younger brains solve problems step by step, older brains call on cognitive templates, those generic outlines of a problem and a solution that worked before. It's the feeling people get when they see that a new situation or problem belongs to a class of situations or problems they've encountered before, with the result that they don't have to attack problems methodically.

Yes, older people forget little things, and may have occasional attention lapses, but their cognitive templates are so rich that they more than hold their own. Their brains can keep up even with a diminished supply of blood and oxygen. As a result, older professionals can readily separate what's important from what's not – a big reason why so many of them fire on all cognitive cylinders well past age 65.
* Sharon Begley, “Parts of brain seem to get better with age” Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2007

My contemporaries confirm this brain improvement phenomenon. So does my own experience.
Like most lawyers I was a compulsive note-taker. But it’s rare that I need the detail preserved in those copious notes. So I’ve shifted gears.

Writing furiously while others speak risks missing critical non-verbal nuances -- eye movements, voice tones, pauses, body language -- that subtle unspoken connection in human encounters that communicates much more than words. Indeed, can a transcript ever do justice to a deposition or a trial?

Giving my undivided attention to people speaking has all but supplanted words on the pad. I still jot down important numbers and a few key words, but no more narratives. Within 24 hours after the meeting, I write down brief impressions and conclusions that prompt the patterns in my aging brain to save what’s needed and to delete the clutter.

Susan Krause Whitbourne connects aging creativity and one’s work:
Openness to new ideas and a flexible attitude toward change are the essence of creativity. Perhaps it is for this reason that creative artists and musicians such as Picasso, Verdi, and Tony Bennett maintained their youthful vitality until so late in life.

Analyzing the lives of a set of six highly creative older adults, Italian researcher Antonini identified a passionate commitment to pursuit of their discipline as the common thread. These creative elders also shared the trait of flexibility or plasticity and rather than dwell on their accomplishments of the past, looked forward to new goals and new creative enterprises. They maintained their curiosity and, similar to the quality of openness to experience, were able to keep up with their times and adapt to changing circumstances.
* The Flexible Brain: How Creativity Affects Aging

Some future film may capture Robert Duval’s greatest performance.

For creative elders it’s healthy to assume our best work still lies ahead …then get after it.

Our aging brains will find ways to keep up the pace.

A wise and creative investment of our late-life inheritance.

- Gerald Le Van

Chair, Family Wealth Mediation Group Upchurch Watson White & Max

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