Why Does Time Speed Up as One Gets Older?

Why do the years pass so quickly in old age?  (Hint: It may not be all attributable to experiencing time in relationship to the length of your life.) Can anything be done to slow down the passage of time and get more out of life at the end of life?

--image by SparkCBC on Flickr

–image by SparkCBC on Flickr

Objective time—real time—passes at an even rate, never speeding up or slowing down. However, subjective time—time in the mind—seems to pass more quickly for the aged. The older one gets, the worse the problem becomes until at some point the oldster laments, “Where has the time gone?  It seems like just yesterday….”

Nobody knows for sure why life seems to speed up at an age at which one would hope it would slow down. There is a theory about this, which by being repeated often enough is usually taken for truth—and may well be true.  And there are several explanations backed up by research studies that shed additional light on the subject.

Subjective Time Linked to a Lifetime

The theoretical and most widely advanced answer in neuroscience for the subjective acceleration of time with aging says that subjective time is relative to a person’s lifetime.  To a 5-year-old, for example, a year seems like a long time, specifically 1/5 of a lifetime. To someone 65 years old, however, a year is 1/65 of a lifetime and seems to pass so quickly as to be hardly noticeable.

Some recent research casts doubt on this theory,  suggesting instead that time acceleration occurs only in retrospect—that is, when one is looking back at events in the past—rather than when one is actually living those events.  Additionally, it appears that time compression may be noticed only when recalling events that occurred within the last ten years.  Thus, a visit by a 5-year-old great grandchild last Christmas may seem like yesterday, while a Christmas visit half a century ago to one’s own great grandfather can be remembered in the fullness of time.

Passage of Time Tied to Memorable Events

Several research studies have pointed to a second explanation for the quicker pace of time as one ages. These studies have shown that subjective time is measured in new or otherwise remarkable events.  In the mind, the more of these there are, the more time is measured out to them in memory.

A child has many new and exciting experiences. Almost every day, something brand new happens.  Looking back on the previous year, a 6-year-old who has entered school in the past year, made a bunch of new friends and learned a million things can hardly recall being 5.  A year is a very long time.

An older person, however, normally has fewer memorable experiences. With each passing year, the mind converts that which was once fresh and new into been-there-done-that routine, which is barely noticeable. Looking back on recent years, a 75-year-old can find few recent memories that stand out. The days resemble one another. Each week is much the same as previous weeks. The years pass by almost unnoticed. Time drags on.  A single year is a very short time.

Longer Time Perceived After an Unforgettable Experience

Another geriatric research study provides a different explanation for the sense of time rushing by in old age. This study compared the difference between the actual and the perceived length of time since a number of well-known events took place. Older people in the experiment, averaging about 70 years in age, consistently dated each event too far back in time.

The way it works is this:  An elderly research participant estimates the time period between the assassination of John Lennon in 1980 and the year of the experiment in 1997 as 24 years instead of the correct 17. For this individual, 24 years feels like 17—and a single year feels like eight-and-a-half months.

Time Draging as the Biological Clock Slows

This last explanation for the rapid progression of time in old age is also grounded in research. This explanation focuses on the physiological clocks in one’s body, which gradually slow down with age.  This causes one to overestimate the passage of time.

In one experiment, people were asked to estimate a three-minute interval. Young adults in the study estimated the time at 183 seconds, only three seconds too many. Middle-aged people were off by a little more: 196 seconds, or 16 seconds too many.  In people 60 to 70 years of age, however, the average estimate was 220 seconds, 40 seconds too many.

After having overestimated the time interval, the older person looks back. Only three minutes of life have been experienced, but it seems as though that amount of living took three minutes 40 seconds. Forty seconds seem empty, somehow lost.  And in this way, four months get lost every year.

OK. So what Can Be Done to Slow Time Down?

Of the four explanations for the rapidity of subjective time among the elderly, only one provides information that can be used to slow time down again.

  • Is it this one? Time is experienced in relationship to the length of one’s life. No, since as one gets older the problem gets worse.
  • Is it this one? A longer time is perceived since an unforgettable experience? Not unless one can contrive somehow to have no memorable experiences, and who would want to do that?
  • How about this one? Time slows as the biological clock slows.  Again, the older one gets, the worse this problem gets.
  • Then it must be this one: The passage of time is linked to memorable events.   To make each year seem longer, create memorable events. Experiment with new and exciting activities. Learn something.  Do something new.

Or in short, to slow down the passage of time and get more out of life at the end of life, go out and have the time of your life.

Resources:  

  • Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes our Past by Douwe Draaisma professor of History of Psychology at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands
  • “The Principles of Psychology,” Volume 1 of The Works of William James, Harvard University Press, Cambridge
  • Human Aging and Duration Judgments: A Meta-Analytic Review by Richard A. Block, Montana University; Dan Zakay, Tel Aviv University; and Peter A. Hancock, Liberty Mutual Research Center

This article was published originally on Suite101.com. 

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