Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

What they don’t tell you about getting older

Posted by Trixter on July 16, 2018


I’m nearing 50.  I’m developing the usual amount of physical issues for someone who doesn’t take care of themselves, but nobody told me about the mental issues that follow.

The human brain is an organ, just like every other organ in your body.  It’s highly specialized, but then again so are most major organs.  As we age, our organs don’t perform as well: We are slower to perform, slower to adapt, slower to heal.  Sometimes organs that performed well in our youth start losing the ability to perform their primary function, such as your kidneys leading to early-onset diabetes.  And, I’m now finding out, the brain suffers from this as well.

It’s no secret that the elderly have easily-identifiable mental issues, mostly speed of processing and the difficulty of forming short-term memory.  What isn’t as well communicated is how less-than-peak-performance brain function affects you long before you become that old.  In the last few years, I find myself:

  • Sensitive to emotion and empathy.  I guess this comparison is inevitable, given my nerd pedigree, but it’s very much like Bendii Syndrome, where you feel emotion more strongly.  There have been times when I was expected to be impartial in a situation, only to find myself quite subjective and borderline irrational based on how I personally felt.
  • Feeling a pervasive sense of loss.  When I first started out in my career (and hobbies), I had an experience and intellectual advantage in my field.  Someone much older than me described me as “the smartest kid in the room”, and I definitely felt that way up until about 8 years ago.  You can see a definite correlation between how much I felt I was losing that and my demoscene productions from 2013 through 2015 — almost as if I was desperately trying to cling to that feeling of being the smartest kid in the room.
  • Being resistant to change.  As emotional response increases, logical reasoning has to fight harder to win.  There are many changes in last few years I’ve resisted because I felt about them a certain way, when logically they made perfect sense to me.
  • Tiring after periods of concentration.  What happens when you work a muscle too much?  It gets tired and hurts.  What happens when I have to learn something new, or concentrate on a difficult problem?  I feel fatigued.

There are ways to mitigate the above, but the cruel irony is that your brain is the organ that has to fix itself, and it’s malfunctioning.  I should get more sleep, exercise, eat better — but my brain wants everything to just go away.

5 Responses to “What they don’t tell you about getting older”

  1. danc256 said

    Every few months a clickbait article comes up in my news feeds about aging workers (which is > 35 apparently) in tech fields. The end of the article is always the same: Keep learning. The same advice that makes perfect sense for younger people also makes sense for older people. Shock. Anyway, as a problem-solving person with attention for detail you already have an excellent toolbox for addressing these concerns later in your career / life. Speaking exclusively from my own experience I felt the gradual decline of not being 20 anymore. Energy dropped, focus waned, sleep went out the window. Oh well, I guess it’s time to shift gears to a paper pushing manager? Pass. All the stuff that “worked” for me when I was younger did so for reasons I didn’t appreciate or understand. When I went back to the foundation (diet, exercise, sleep, cognative load) it was slow to start but when I started making progress it was like a rocket out of the abyss. Things started clicking and working “like they used to”. Diet by far was the biggest win. A registered dietician is relatively cheap for the huge benefits you gain from watching what you stuff in your face. A personal trainer will help you not mangle yourself and make regular progress. There are councilors, specialists and all manner of practicioners who can point you in the right direction to mitigate whatever ails you. But you will work. Everyone is different and even experienced professionals will usually only give general advice. You have to explore and experiment in the boxes they lay in front of you. You’ll make a ton of mistakes, things won’t work, and you may languish for months thinking this is all in vain. Then the first thing clicks. Oh that felt good. Lather, rinse, repeat. The same thing you do in tech. Hammer at it until you own it then move on. Now you read more. You find new ways to ingest information (audiobooks and podcasts are great space fillers in airports, doctor’s offices, commuting or whatever and there are so many others). You get better at filtering out noise. You shift from task-oriented to goal-oriented and better manage time. Oh you can’t keep an encyclopedia in your head? Your note-taking skills improve. You’ve worked really hard at building up decades worth of cruft of which a lot of it is of questionable value. No wonder you can’t think anymore. Focus on priorities and jettison the rest. It’s hard to start but momentum is a thing. And then suddenly you realize that the abilities you had back in the day are right where you left them, and now the reasons why are clearly defined and well-known instead of something you did right by accident and let drift away unknowningly. If something bothers you, repurpose the time spent ruminating with time spent mitigating. Sooner is better. Ya ain’t dead ‘till they bury you in the ground.

    PS – Obviously I can only speak for myself. Everyone is different and will have issues I never had to address and vice-versa. Probably the dumbest thing I did was try to fix all my problems myself. If I could travel back in time and advise myself of 20 years ago what to change, it would be to not think I could fix everything myself. Yes I ultimately have to do the work, but seek out the advice I need to focus that effort sooner than later.

    PPS – I swear I feel better now than when I was 20.

    • Trixter said

      I appreciate you taking the time to write up your experiences and advice. I think the root of any improvement I’m going to make is more sleep, so I managed to get 7 hours’ sleep last night and, so far, that is helping. If I can turn that into a regular thing, that may give me the tools to tackle diet which is currently my weakest link.

      Thank goodness for smartphones. It is helpful to have a note-taking device as well as a configurable alarm on my person at all times.

      A member of my family uses professional help for things they cannot change themselves. I’ve been resistant to that my entire life, but I may have to alter my thinking somehow about that. Pride may be a factor :-)

      • danc256 said

        Habit may also be a factor. I love being able to find information “on my own” but not all channels of information are the same. For all the times I read articles that older people get “set in their ways” I shake my fist at a cloud and proclaim “I’m still learning!” Yeah but how often do I go outside my comfort zone compared to days gone by? Oh. Trying new things you genuinely have no experience in and finding new streams of information you can ingest regularly have been a massive boon. I’d say 50% of the useful things I find come directly from my information sources (audiobooks, podcasts, blog posts, conversations) and the other half comes from links or references from said sources.

  2. Trixter, around 50 I also experienced an emotional shift in my personalty. I became very emotionally sensitive. However, I had worked out and tried to eat well many years before this “change”. At 53 my doctors discovered I was pumping only 35% from my heart and proceeded to have a quad-bypass. Emotional sensitivity was caused by my physical illness because of chemistry.

    I woke up from surgery a changed man. The sensitivity diminished but the damage to my heart had been done. Please schedule a stress test.

    Also, there is absolutely nothing wrong with sensitive, kind, and gentle people. We could use more of that.

    and your smarter that me, so… :)

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