WHETHER on page, stage or screen, the story of human health and happiness is often presented as an inevitable arc between birth and death. William Shakespeare captured this best with his “seven ages of man” speech. We enter the world “mewling and puking” as an infant, pass through the awkwardness of childhood and adolescence into our physical and mental prime, before a slow decline.
Until recently, science appeared to confirm this view. For many abilities, we seemed to reach our peak well before midlife. But it is now becoming clear that this picture is far too simplistic. Childhood and adolescence may offer the most rapid periods of development, but our brains can change in positive ways throughout life, with some important cognitive skills continuing to improve into our 50s, 60s and 70s. “The whole idea that the brain is fully mature at age 25 is a joke,” says Daniel Romer, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Nor does our fitness simply rise, peak and fall in a curve. While 20-somethings may win a sprint, performance in many other sports can reach a high later in life. That’s not to mention factors like emotional well-being and mental discipline, which rise and fall in unexpected patterns. And despite nostalgia for the joys of youth, for most of us, our happiest days are actually yet to come.
By learning to recognise these patterns, we can find better ways to nurture our growth and embrace the opportunities available at each stage of life. So what, based on science, are the seven ages of you? And how can you make the most of …