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Time Seems to Fly Faster As We Get Older

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: My biggest complaint about aging is that time is accelerating rapidly.  I am very active with full days of working with the nonprofit I have launched, am mentally engaged and never bored.  But time just goes by too fast.  How do you slow down time — not literally but perceptually?  It’s Sunday and then in a flash it’s Friday.        

Answer: Many people would agree with you.  But let’s begin with a little background on how “time flies.” As people get older, “they just have this feeling that time is going faster than they are,” says Warren Meck, a psychology professor at Duke University in an interview on National Public Radio.

Scientists have some theories about this.  One theory suggests that the first time you have an experience in your earlier years you remember the details because that experience is novel.  Events seem to be in slow motion. Think about your first kiss.

“The touch of lips, the excitement, tastes and smell – everything about this moment is novel. You aren’t embroidering a bank of previous experiences, you are starting fresh,” says neuroscientist David Eagleman, in the same NPR broadcast.

Dr. William Friedman, psychology professor at Oberlin College, proposes several reasons or theories to explain why older adults experience time more quickly than younger folks.

Reason No. 1: Years are relatively smaller. As we age, each year is a smaller proportion of our time.  For a 10-year old, a birthday represents 1/10 of life.  For an 80 year old, at birthday is 1/80 of life.  Each year feels shorter compared to the total time we have lived and therefore seems to go by faster.

Reason No. 2: The biological clock slows. With age, some of our bodily processes slow down.  Our internal clock can run slower compared to the external calendar.  So time may pass much faster than we expect it to.

Reason No. 3:  Paying attention to external cues can be difficult.
We judge time by noticing cues such as clocks, church bells, seeing the sun rise or set. If you are concentrating, it is easy to ignore those time cues.  Friedman suggests that as we age, we have fewer cognitive resources to focus on the external cues that track the passage of time.

Here’s a study, however,  that runs counter to the concept that older people perceive time as moving more quickly than younger people:

About 500 German and Austrian participants age 14 to 94 were asked how quickly time passed for them the previous week, month, year and the past 10 years. Researchers found almost no age-related differences.  The only significant difference was how older participants perceived time for the past 10 years.  The decade passed more quickly for them compared to middle-age or younger folks.

Friedman replicated the study with 1,865 individuals age 16 to 80 from two countries.  Everyone felt time was fleeting.  Age differences were very small and mostly limited, again, to how fast the past 10 years have gone by.  Another conclusion:  Time flies when you are rushed and cannot get everything done.

What can we do to slow down the perception of time in our later years?

  • Stop…just stop periodically and take a few deep breaths.
  • Slow down, trying walking instead of running.
  • At the end of the day, take a few moments and do a recap of the day.
  • Be conscious of what you are doing and what is happening around you.
  • Share you day with someone as a review.  One can even relive the high points.
  • Keep a journal.  Write about your day.  This will give you time to reflect and appreciate the minutes and hours.

Thank you for your good question. We can’t freeze the moments we live, but we can savor them and be aware of the gift of time.

Best wishes in continuing your full and rich life.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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