Once you hit middle age all the talk seems to be about the inevitable decline into a miserable old age. But it’s not all downhill.
The older you get, the more likely it is that you’ll be immune to some of the estimated 200 cold viruses in circulation
After the age of 50 we tend to be less affected by seasonal allergies such as hay fever. This is partly because as we age, we produce less of the allergic antibody IgE which triggers the reaction.
As Dr Adrian Morris, of the Surrey Allergy Clinic, explains: ‘In allergic people, IgE levels rise through childhood, then stabilise in the late teens to 30s, and start to drop through the 40s and 50s. So by the 60s and 70s, the allergic reaction is less severe.
‘The bulk of my patients are children and young adults — older patients with allergy-like symptoms often have a non‑allergic cause, such as smoking, medication, weather changes and infections.’
However, severe sensitivities (for instance, to peanuts) are less likely to diminish, adds Lindsey McManus, of Allergy UK.
Some studies show as many as 40 per cent of women who suffer migraines no longer have attacks by the age of 65.
With many, it’s the menopause that makes the difference, according to Migraine Action: 67 per cent of women find their migraines stop or improve significantly afterwards. This is because levels of oestrogen drop, and oestrogen is a very common migraine trigger.
Unfortunately, male migraine sufferers can expect no such respite with age.
As we age, our sweat glands begin to shrink and become less sensitive
As we age, our sweat (eccrine) glands begin to shrink and become less sensitive, so you could economise on deodorant.
A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that women aged 52 to 62 sweated less than those aged 20 to 30, which they put down to ‘a diminished response of the sweat glands to central and/or peripheral stimuli’ and ‘an age-related structural alteration in the eccrine glands or surrounding skin cells’.
Many of us think hard-edged competitiveness is a young person’s game, but a recent study at the University of Oregon found older men are far more so.
When volunteers were offered a cash prize if they could do simple maths puzzles more quickly than a rival, 70 per cent of men aged 45 to 54 leapt at the chance compared to just 50 per cent of men aged 25 to 34.
The researchers suggested older men may have a greater drive for social dominance because by middle age, men expect to have attained a certain level of success and, therefore, feel the need to demonstrate this success through competition.
Women showed a similar pattern of competitiveness, but their willingness to challenge others was consistently lower than men’s.
Although the menopause is often linked to a drop in libido, some experts believe a woman’s sex life can improve
With age, a drop in inhibitions means many older people report more enjoyable sex after 50.
A National Council on Ageing survey found that of people aged 60 and over who had regular intercourse, 74 per cent of the men and 70 per cent of the women had more satisfying sex lives than in their 40s.
Although the menopause is often linked to a drop in libido, some experts believe a woman’s sex life can improve.
For many, orgasm becomes easier with age, according to research by Dr Debby Herbenick, a lecturer in applied health science at Indiana University.
‘While 61 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 experienced orgasm the last time they had sex, 65 per cent of women in their 30s did and about 70 per cent in their 40s and 50s,’ she says.
She believes that as women become more sexually experienced, they have more confidence and, therefore, enjoy themselves more.
And men don’t do too badly, either.
A 2008 study in the British Medical Journal found that an increasing number of 70-year-olds are having good sex and more often.
Each time your body is exposed to a virus, it develops antibodies that make you immune to that virus in the future, so the older you get, the more likely it is that you’ll be immune to some of the estimated 200 cold viruses in circulation.
Experts estimate that after the age of 50, the average person has one or two colds each year — this compares with two or three for 20-year-olds and many more for children. Unfortunately, this increased immunity doesn’t apply to the flu virus which mutates every year.
Although we associate the ageing process with failing mental prowess, some areas, such as vocabulary and long-term memory, can be sharpened with age.
Scans show that we grow new brain cells as we learn.
‘If you make the most of your memory and use it regularly, that portion of your brain can actually get better as you get older,’ explains Dr Gary Small, a neuroscientist and author of The Memory Bible.
Verbal ability continues to improve into old age, particularly if we keep reading.
A recent study by the University of Texas found that beyond the age of 60, we are also better at making decisions that guarantee long-term benefits than we might have been in our 20s and 30s.
In the study, older participants consistently outperformed their younger rivals by figuring out the option that led to the most long-term reward.
The researchers believe that the ventral striatum region of the brain, associated with habit formation and immediate reward, deteriorates with age, and we compensate by using the prefrontal cortex which controls rational and deliberate thoughts.
Furthermore, brain scans show that while young people often use only one side of their brain for a specific task, middle-aged and older adults are more likely to activate both hemispheres at once.
In most people the left hemisphere specialises in speech, language and logical reasoning while the right hemisphere handles more intuitive tasks such as face recognition and reading emotional cues.
By involving both sides, older people can make more fruitful connections among the disparate parts of a problem.
Neuroscientists believe our brain learns to do this after middle age as a means of boosting efficiency and helping us see the bigger picture when performing tasks.
LESS SENSITIVE TEETH
If you have been plagued by sensitive teeth your symptoms may ease as you get older because more dentin (the tooth’s inner hard tissue) is laid down between the enamel and nerves. This means extra insulation and a diminished pain response.
Sensitivity is normally caused by hot or cold food and drink seeping into the tiny tubules (or microscopic pores) that run from the outside of the tooth to the nerve in the pulp.
Toothpaste designed for sensitive teeth helps by blocking those tubules, but a report in the International Dental Journal found that dentil tubules narrow and harden over time, thus reducing sensitivity.
However, some people may end up with more sensitive roots, as London dentist Dr Anthony Halperin points out.
‘You may get less decay and less sensitivity in places, but as gums recede more dentine will be exposed around the margins of the teeth causing increased sensitivity as the root of the tooth becomes exposed,’ he says.
Despite the gruelling effort required, marathon runners improve with age.
Sports scientists believe older runners are more mentally resilient, more determined to win and often train more effectively.
A 16-year study at Yale University found runners aged 50-plus show greater improvements in marathon times than younger ones.
The top female runners aged 50 to 59 showed the greatest improvement of all.
Yale’s Dr Peter Jokl advises that the key to running success in middle age is often starting late. Runners who start young are more likely to wear out their joints earlier.
Older adults see the good things in life more easily
People report more ‘positive well‑being’ and greater emotional stability as they get older, according to a study at Stanford University in the U.S.
Psychologists believe this is due to changes in how the brain — in particular the amygdala which processes emotion — responds to events.
When researchers scanned the brains of volunteers aged 18 to 29, their amygdalae were activated equally by cheerful and distressing images, but the brains of volunteers aged 70 to 90 reacted much more strongly to the positive pictures.
Dr Laura Carstensen, who led the study, says: ‘Older people clearly show preferences in memory and attention for positive over negative.’
Professor Bill von Hippel, from the University of Queensland’s School Of Psychology, has been examining the links between people’s age and their sense of social satisfaction.
He says: ‘Older adults see the good things in life more easily and are less likely to be upset by the little things that go wrong.
‘This may be the wisdom of ageing — the ability to experience everyday life as uplifting.’