Paul Johnson

The age of achievement

Doctors say it’s all downhill from 45. History suggests otherwise

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Doctors say it’s all downhill from 45. History suggests otherwise

A study in the British Medical Journal suggests that our brains begin to deteriorate from the age of 45. Examining the vocabulary, comprehension and memories of 7,000 45- to 70-year-olds, the researchers found a 3.6 per cent decline in the second half of their forties.

This will come as a surprise to students of history. Men and women have achieved positions of power at all stages of life, but it is remarkable how many have lived in obscurity until their forties and gone on to do remarkable things. A good example was Oliver Cromwell, who only stepped into the public sphere in his late forties (he was born in 1599). He became the key figure in the creation of the most formidable army in Europe, and led it to overwhelming success. He then switched to civil government, became Lord Protector at the age of 53, and ran one of the most successful administrations in English history until his death.

The United States provides many such examples. George Washington, born in 1732, developed into a successful general in his late forties, and was 57 when he became president. His last months in office were notable for shrewdness and perception. His Farewell Address of 19 September 1796 is a model of clarity, good sense and statesmanship. Abraham Lincoln, too, born in 1809, did not come to national prominence until he was in his late forties, and all his achievements were accomplished in his fifties. General Dwight Eisenhower was 54 when he was Supreme Commander of the D-Day invasion of Europe. He was 62 when he became president, and passed his 70th birthday in office.

Ronald Reagan was a man who progressed to ever-increasing responsibilities in his forties, fifties and sixties, and was president in his seventies. He succumbed to Alzheimer’s during his retirement, but examination of the records of his last year in office shows no sign of deterioration: quite the contrary.

If we look at the British prime ministers of the 19th and 20th centuries, we find outstanding examples of men achieving supreme office, or holding it, late in life, sometimes very late. Lord Palmerston, born in 1784, held Cabinet office for a greater proportion of his long life than any other man in our history, and died in office aged 80. He did not get into 10 Downing Street until he was over 70, but then with the exception of one brief period remained there for good. His wit, if anything, increased. A fortnight before his death he accompanied Queen Victoria to a military review in Hyde Park. When she complained of the smell of the sweaty troops, he replied: ‘Yes, Ma’am. It is known as esprit de corps.’ His last recorded remark, delivered with his characteristic staccato laugh, was: ‘Die, my dear doctor? That’s the last thing I shall do.’

Gladstone was prime minister four times, on the last occasion aged nearly 83. He was very deaf and almost blind, but that did not prevent him from combining his prime ministerial duties with translating Homer, preparing and delivering with great aplomb the Romanes Lecture in Oxford, and sorting out the complex financial affairs of Lord Granville, who was bankrupt. Gladstone’s record was unique, but it was by no means unusual for politicians to emerge to prominence in late middle age. A good example was Stanley Baldwin. He was born in 1867, and was for many years an unnoticed backbench MP. In 1922, at the age of 55, he became chancellor. A year later he was promoted to prime minister, over the head of a furious Lord Curzon, who described him as ‘a person of the utmost insignificance’. Yet Baldwin was premier for two other spells, governing with great cunning, handling the General Strike with brilliant skill, the abdication crisis with dexterity, and resigning with general applause aged 70. It may be that he underestimated the perils of Hitlerism, but so did everyone else except Churchill.

Lloyd George was born in 1863, and when he scrambled into supreme office at the end of 1916, he was 53. Yet opinion was unanimous that he brought to the premiership astonishing energy and attention to detail, lightning quickness of mind and a huge grasp of essential principles — all the qualities supposedly in rapid decline in a person of his age. When Churchill in turn became prime minister for the first time, he was 65, and he held the job, with ever-increasing power and authority, as he put it himself, for five years. The opinion both of contemporaries, and of historians since, is that no one could have done it so well. In 1951 he began his second premiership, aged nearly 77.

Of course it may be true that the work of statesmen depends greatly on experience, which compensates for any falling off in cerebral powers. Churchill certainly benefited by what he had gone through in the first world war. But if we look at the whole field of human activities, there are many areas where experience seems less significant. Among the leading composers, for example, Verdi and Wagner were both born in 1813. They wrote works of distinction at all periods of their life, but there is general agreement that their more formidable creations were produced from their late forties onwards. Verdi was 74 when he composed Otello, and 80 when he produced Falstaff. Wagner was past 60 when he wrote Götterdammerung, and even older when Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal emerged. Again, Beethoven was 53 when he wrote his Ninth Symphony. His finest chamber works were the products of his late fifties.

In painting and sculpture, manual dexterity almost inevitably declines at a certain age. But Michelangelo was born in 1475 and worked practically to his death in 1564. When he began ‘the Last Judgment’ in the Sistine Chapel he was 61, and he was 66 before he finished it. All of his best architecture was done in middle age or later: he did not begin to work on St Peter’s until he was 71. Tintoretto’s best work in the Scuola di San Rocco dates from his fifties and sixties, and some from his seventies. When Titian painted ‘Diana and Actaeon’ he was in his seventies. Painters often produce their finest work in their fifties. This was true of Rubens and Rembrandt, Velazquez and Claude, Goya and Fragonard. The fifties, for painters, seems to be the stage when skills peak, before age erodes the ability to use the brush.

There may be activities where maturity comes soon and departs early. Mathematics is accounted such in popular wisdom, though the experience of Newton and Einstein does not confirm it. It is true that Newton’s great work, his Principia Mathematica, on which he had worked for 25 years, was published in 1687 when he was 45. True also that both Einstein’s Special Theory and his General Theory of Relativity were conceived when he was comparatively young. But there is no evidence, from the more than a million words of his writings that survive, that Newton’s mind declined in any way, and Einstein, too, remained as perceptive and sharp as ever to the end of his long life.

It may be that the large sample taken by the BMJ study for its survey is, indeed, a representative one, and that among average people, mental decline sets in during the forties. All I can say, as a historian, is that this does not seem to apply to those who get to the top.