Aging can be defined as a progressive loss of function and performance with time.  It saps the individual’s capacity to withstand stress, fight diseases, heal wounds, be creative or to learn new skills.  

The question remains, why must we age and can we remain creative while doing so? According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, every year that you are alive increases the risk of dying by 10%. And if you are fortunate enough to be my age (over 90), your odds of not making your 91st birthday are roughly 1 in 6.

I have written about aging before, likely because it is a topic of more and more interest as I grow older and older and try to learn new skills or continue to be creative. The conclusions that can be drawn from the current body of literature clearly indicate that creativity tends to decline with age, in spite of anecdotal reports to the contrary.

Let us, however, propose a counterfactual thought experiment. Let us consider, for a moment, that some individuals are indeed able to maintain and even enhance their creative abilities as they age. How could this be? Trying to answer this question is in itself an exercise in creativity that can help us understand what factors are responsible for the negative age trend. It forces us to extrude a number of assumed elements of creativity and to ask which elements do in fact deteriorate with age, which elements do not, and what factors enable them to do so. Answering this might even point the way toward how to train to be more creative — even among youngsters.

Age

According to Andrew Steele in his new book “Ageless,” “Aging happens to all of us and growing old brings experience and wisdom; to do so gracefully is something to aspire to. Since the dawn of life, aging has been a natural part of being alive. Thus, the word ‘aging’ comes with a variety of connotations, not all of them negative. But, from a biological perspective, perhaps the best (and certainly the simplest) definition of aging is the exponential increase in death and suffering with time.”

My favorite saying about aging is that “with age comes wisdom, but sometimes it comes alone.”  

Creativity

Because creativity consists of the generation of ideas or products that are both original and useful, it means that a wide array of separate but related cognitive processes are at play to satisfy both criteria. Thus, researchers have suggested that the creative process may best be characterized by a generation phase, in which original ideas are freely invented without scrutiny, followed by an evaluation or exploration phase, during which the value of ideas is examined, and ideas are elaborated and refined as needed. Creativity differs from related processes including imagination, prospection, originality and innovation. It requires that an idea or product is surprising or nonobvious.

Related Factors

Based on the growing body of literature examining psychological elements at play in creativity, there are  three  somewhat complicated sets of factors needed in order to understand the effects of aging. They were included in a seminal article titled “Creativity and Aging: What We Can Make with What We Have Left” written by Martin Seligman, Marie Forgeard and Scott Barry Kaufman.   

First there are factors related to (a) cognition and expertise, including cognitive abilities, originality, mind-wandering, knowledge and expertise, intuition, pattern recognition and heuristics.

Next, is the role related to (b) personality and motivation, including flexibility, openness to experience, integrative complexity, strength of interest, intrinsic motivation, ambition, grit, optimism, confidence, self-efficacy and energy.

Finally, there is the contribution of (c) interpersonal processes, such as having a good sense of the audience and engaging in collaboration.

Creativity And Aging

Can creativity actually increase with age? Much research suggests that neural conduction speed, memory and stamina decline as we get older. In addition, studies have shown that creative productivity in the arts and sciences tends to peak within a few decades of the start of one’s career, and then decreases gradually afterward.

There are, of course, exceptions: Kant wrote his most famous work “The Critique of Pure Reason” at age 57, and Verdi composed “Falstaff” at around 80. Pavlov did not even begin his conditioning work until the second half of his life. This pattern, however, varies by field (youth seems to be more of an asset for mathematicians and poets than other scholars), and a second peak (“swan song”) often occurs later in life.

Summary

Studies have shown that while cognitive ability generally declines with age, knowledge, expertise and other resources may generally increase with age. The following elements likely decline with age: speed, short-term memory, fluid reasoning, originality, mind-wandering, energy and stamina and openness to experience.  Whereas the following likely increase or remain stable with age: domain-specific knowledge and expertise, general knowledge, pattern recognition, intuition, and heuristics (a self-educating technique), diversity of experience, interest and motivation, grit and self-efficacy and effective collaboration.  The jury is still out on creativity.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.