Time on the Run
The woman sharing the elevator with me looked to be in her 70s.
“How can it be the end of the week already,” she asked, “when I feel as if Monday was just yesterday?”
I felt the same way—and probably so did most of my neighbors in the retirement community where I live. Time speeds up in your later years. Sometimes it feels like a cruel joke: the weeks and months seem to pass at warp speed just when there’s so much less time ahead of us.
But it’s a fact: starting as early as our 40s or 50s, the older we are, the faster the days seem to fly. Scientists have confirmed this in studies done all over the world.
Apparently there’s good old, reliable clock time, where a minute always lasts 60 seconds, and then there’s the way we experience time, which can change from hour to hour. The minutes drag if we’re bored or depressed, but when we’re having fun, hours, days and even weeks zip by. Since I turned 70 a decade ago, Friday always seems to arrive right on the heels of Monday, and that’s not because my life is one long party.
There are a number of theories about why time speeds up beginning in middle age. Some neuroscientists blame declining levels of the brain chemical dopamine, which can affect the way we experience time. Other researchers explain that as we grow older, brain activity slows down—our neurons don’t fire as fast. Because we think and react more slowly, we get the sensation that time and events around us are going faster, like a driver in the slow lane who feels everyone else is racing by.
But this is only a partial explanation. We experience time in two different ways: in the moment as we’re immersed in it, and in retrospect. When older people complain about time speeding up, they’re not wondering why at that very minute their day is on fast forward. They’re looking back and asking how it could be the end of the month so soon.
Some psychologists, tackling the riddle of time, take into account this focus on the past. They suggest that memory is involved.
Claudia Hammond, author of Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception (2012), notes that we store up more new memories between the ages of 15 and 25 than at any other time in our lives. That decade is rich in events that we strongly recall later on. She suggests that those years also set a pattern: we get used to how many events are likely to occur within a given time frame.
In midlife and later, most people’s lives are more routine—I know mine is. If one day tends to blend into the next with few novel, memorable events happening, then when we look back, says Hammond, there’s less to recall and we have the illusion that not much time has passed.
The truth is, no one knows for sure why time accelerates in our later years, but Hammond suggests a way to slow it down: we can crowd our days with more events, especially new experiences because they produce dense memories. Then when we look backward over a week or a decade, we’ll feel as if it lasted a longer time.
I’m ambivalent about this strategy. Whenever I’m very busy, I begin to feel too much is going on. I like a quiet life.
But the next time I get the uneasy feeling that time has been on fast forward, I’ll take it as a sign that I may be letting too many, practically identical days slip by. Even though they’re enjoyable, I’ll at least consider trying something new to shake up my life.
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The Silver Century Foundation promotes a positive view of aging. The Foundation challenges entrenched and harmful stereotypes, encourages dialogue between generations, advocates planning for the second half of life, and raises awareness to educate and inspire everyone to live long, healthy, empowered lives.
"It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment; in these qualities old age is usually not poorer, but is even richer."
Cicero (106-43 BC)