When Do We Get Stupid?

When do old people get stupid? We all age, but will we all lose our reasoning skills? And at what point in the aging process does that happen? If we knew, could we stop it?

We hear about old people falling prey to scams and crimes of opportunity all the time. And sure, some old people weren’t the sharpest knife in the block when they were young, but lots of them used to be smart. How do these formerly-smart people fall prey to everyone who wants to make a buck?

Let’s take the case of my father – he’s in his 80s. My dad called me two weeks ago to tell me his phone wasn’t working, so he’d be out of touch for a while. It was roughly the sixth time his phone went out in a year’s time. I said ok, and I’d talk to him when he did get a phone. He called a week later to tell me his phone was fixed, and he’d just signed a new deal with the cable monopoly.

“Didn’t you have Cableopoly before?” I asked.


“Dad, your phone has gone out six times in the past year. Why would you stay with them?”

“Well, they offered me a deal –free HBO for the next six months,” he said.

“It’s not a deal if your phone doesn’t work,” I said, “And your phone goes out all the time.”

“Oh, that was Phoneopoly. They own the lines coming into the house. That had nothing to do with Cableopoly.”

“Wasn’t Cableopoly responsible for keeping you in phone service?”

“Well, yes, but Phonopoly was the problem.”

“Are they still using Phonopoly?”


“Why do you let these people victimize you? You know there are other ways to get phone service,” I said.

“What, victimize? I got free HBO.”

My father made his living as a mechanical engineer, so I know he was, at one time, at least book-smart. He also maintains an exaggerated degree of paranoia. He once told me, “Everyone’s out to get you.” So how did Cableopoly convince a man who had smarts and suspicion to sign a new contract for unreliable phone service?

He’s old. And he’s cheap. And he must be bored with his TV channels. As we spoke, I got one more glimpse into how his mind works. He was telling me how difficult it was to get the cable people to fix his phone, because he couldn’t call them.

“You’ve got a cell phone,” I said. He does. It only works for outgoing calls, but he’s got one.

“It was out of minutes,” he said.

“You can buy more, can’t you?” I said.

“Well, then you’ve gotta buy a card and I didn’t need all those minutes.”


“Well, now I do.”

I gave up. So, my father signed another contract and I’m resigned to spending another year hearing a perpetual busy signal or “The number you have reached is not available at this time,” and wondering if my dad is lying on the floor having just dialed “9-1.”

Although I don’t embrace the process of getting older, I have made some peace with it. But I cannot accept the idea that age will render me stupid. I know people in their seventies who still function adeptly in society.
What’s the difference between them and the vulnerable people like my father?

That’s the million-dollar question. How do we maintain our faculties as we age? I don’t know. One thing I have noticed, though, is that the septuagenarians who seem sharpest are very social. My father sees people at the senior center maybe once a week. Even though he was never much of a social animal, I think the lack of contact limits his understanding of the world. Maybe the act of socializing doesn’t maintain your brain, but hearing about scams firsthand can at least make you wary of them.

The second thing I see in smart old folks is that they’re productive. They either work or they teach or they create things – even knitting a scarf can keep their minds juiced. But I think it’s more than that. I think staying productive keeps them feeling useful, and that’s a big self-esteem boost. My dad took care of my mom for 13 years when she had Alzheimer’s. When she died, he didn’t know what to do with himself. As difficult as it was, at least he felt productive while he cared for her. And at the time, he didn’t sign any contracts with Cableopoly.

I don’t have a third thing. I know that Alzheimer’s studies say that people who keep on learning are less likely to develop the disease, and that’s good enough for me. If I can prevent Alzheimer’s – it’s in my genes – by learning new things, then hopefully I can hold onto my intelligence throughout my golden years.

I want to live a long time. I just had a baby, and by the time he’s 20, I’ll be over 60. I wish I’d had my kids sooner because I want to see as much of their lives as possible. So I plan to stick around as long as I can. I just hope I can be old and smart at the same time. And now that I think about it, if I’m not social, productive, or knowledgeable, I’m not sure I want to be old at all.

One comment on “When Do We Get Stupid?

  1. You obviously care a lot about your father and are concerned about the outcome of some of the decisions he is making. I commend you for asking questions about the aging process. Although old age is often associated with decline, growth still occurs and a lot of negative changes are a result of pathology not the normal aging process. Aging is a unique, multi-dimensional, lifelong process that begins at birth. It is highly diverse. Older age can be a time of creativity, self-actualization, learning, and remaining active (social and cognitive) if we choose to make it so. Admit and accept the reality that aging imposes some limitations. Conserve energy, keep involved with life, make appropriate choices about use of time, and pace life realistically in accordance with needs, desires, and abilities (Saxon, Etten, & Perkins, 2010). You can do a lot to maintain your level of social and cognitive functioning. It is up to you define what successful aging means to you and to take the steps to ensure that you maintain a high quality life as you age. The choices you make will impact the aging process.


    1. Crystallized intelligence is measured by vocabulary skills, general information, and long-term associations; it is thought to remain stable or improved throughout life. Crystallized intelligence is not as dependent on the neurologic state of the individual as fluid intelligence.
    2. Fluid intelligence is measured by the ability to do certain tasks involving symbols, figures, or words; it is associated with information processing, reasoning, and abstractions. It is also linked to creative abilities such as perceiving and understanding perceptual and spatial relationships. Fluid intelligence tends to peak in young adulthood and then gradually declines. Decline can be observed as decreases in attentiveness, concentration, short-term memory, and speed of learning (Hayslip & Panek, 1993; Touhy, 2008).
    3. Older adults should keep their minds active, participating in novel activities including: reading, cross word puzzles, chess, etc. Learning in later life remains a potent force in maintaining mental wellness and physical health and for keeping in touch with life and the world (Saxon, Etten, & Perkins, 2010a). The ability to scaffold is important because scaffolding serves to maintain and improve areas of cognitive functioning. Scaffold development occurs as a result not of work or leisure per se but of situations that are optimally challenging to the cognitive system and that engage many different domains of cognition, including attention, working memory, long-term memory, and activation of knowledge systems (Park, & Reuter-Lorenz, 2009).
    4. Stay connected with family and friends. There is now wide-ranging evidence for correctional relationships of engagement in mentally and socially stimulating activities with health, longevity, and cognitive vitality (Schaie & Willis, 2011). Maintaining social relationships with others reduces the risk of isolation and depression. Support throughout the aging process is imperative!
    5. Focus on the present. We cannot change our past and we can only control the future by what we do in the present. Admit and accept the reality that aging imposes some limitations. Conserve energy, keep involved with life, make appropriate choices about use of time, and pace life realistically in accordance with needs, desires, and abilities (Saxon, Etten, & Perkins, 2010).
    6. Activities that help people practice strategies and train in specific cognitive areas (for example, episodic memory, inductive reasoning, and visual speed of processing) can have long-standing positive effects, even up to five years after the training (Ball et al., 2002 as cited in Stine-Morrow & Basak, 2011). These types of activities can also help reduce the risk for developing more serious forms of age-related cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s disease (Wilson et al., 2002).


    Ball, K., Berch, D. B., Helmers, K. F., Jobe, J. B., Leveck, M. D., Marsiske, M., . . . Willis, S. L. (2002). Effects of cognitive training interventions with older adults: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 288, 2271–2281. doi:10.1001/jama.288.18.2271

    Hayslip, B., Jr., & Panek, P. (1993). Adult development and aging (2nd ed.) New York: Harper Collins.

    Park, D. C., & Reuter-Lorenz, P. (2009). The Adaptive Brain: Aging and Neurocognitive Scaffolding. Annual Review of Psychology. 2009. 60:173–96 doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093656

    Saxon, S. V., Etten, M. J., & Perkins, E. A. (2010a). A Guide for the Helping Professions: Physical Change & Aging (pp. 4-6, 411, 400). New York, NY: Springer.

    Schaie, K. W., & Willis, S. L. (2011). Handbook of psychology (pp. 159, 249-259). Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

    Touhy, T. A. (2008). Cognition and caring for persons with cognitive impairments. In P. Ebersole, P. Hess, T. A. Touhy, K. Jett, & A. S. Luggen (Eds.), Toward healthy aging (7th ed., pp. 548-581). St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier.

    Wilson, R. S., Mendes de Leon, C. F., Barnes, L. L., Schneider, J. A., Bienias, J. L., Evans, D. A., & Bennett, D. A. (2002). Participation in cognitively stimulating activities and risk of incident Alzheimer Disease. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 287(6), 742-748.

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