5 Scientific Reasons Life Is Harder When You're Young
"Savor every moment of your youth! You'll never be this healthy and full of energy again!" I used to hear that stuff when I was younger, and it made me anxious as hell. My health seemed pretty lousy, had I really peaked already? Was it all downhill from there? Fortunately, it turns out you don't actually peak in college and then just spend the rest of your life slowly falling apart. In some significant ways, your grandpa might actually be feeling better than you do.
Sex Is Worse In Your Supposed "Prime"
The world's most popular fetish is youth. Billboards and porn videos alike prefer bodies that haven't seen 30 (or can appear youthful with enough Photoshop or makeup). Since all of the signifiers of hotness are things like smooth skin, tight muscles, full hair, and perfect teeth, you'd assume that genitals start to go dormant by age 35 and vanish entirely by 40.
You may have even heard that according to science, men and women reach their "sexual peak" at very different ages, with guys peaking in their late teens and women at 35. Pioneering sex expert Alfred Kinsey is partly responsible for this, but that was based on a report asking people about the number of orgasms they experienced in a week, and orgasms alone don't tell the tale. Some teenage guy may be having a lot of orgasms, for example, but it probably isn't because of intimate satisfying sex with a partner.
Modern surveys, on the other hand, suggest sex is worst at the age when Hollywood says we're at our sexiest. When they look back, the majority of elderly people say that the best sex of their lives happened in their 40s. And it can happen quite a bit later than that. In one study of women between 40-100, those under 55 and older than 80 reported the greatest satisfaction with their orgasms. The women in that group had a median age of 67, and half of them reported engaging in sexual activity in the last month. The Golden Girls wasn't exaggerating about that condo full of randy grandmas.
We tend to assume that old people have no sex drives, and that our grandparents last enjoyed nookie way back in the days when people still called it "nookie," but that simply isn't true. Even if some younger people have more frequent sex, studies say that older people are getting more enjoyment out of the sex they do have. Practice, and knowing your own body, mean a lot more than having tight youthful abs.
And romantic prospects are looking especially rosy for older bachelors. Men tend to die younger than women, so a silver-haired, single gentleman has his pick of lonesome widows. The aging male physique can also improve in surprising ways. The skin gets less oily (so no more bacne), the thinning of body hair can make him less ape-like, and the inevitable loosening of the ligaments downstairs can even make the penis appear larger.
So please don't let pop culture tell you that your lonely early 20s are a waste of your precious sexual prime. And definitely don't let a bunch of old sitcoms and standup routines tell you that sex dies with marriage, as if it's all downhill from there. It totally isn't.
Mental Illness Is More Common -- And Worse -- In Teens
On one hand, this kind of fits the stereotype. Teenagers are famously prone to mood swings, obsessive crushes, severe social anxiety, and filling the margins of their trig homework with poems about loneliness, death, and lonely death. If an adult did crap like that, we'd worry that they were going through a severe crisis, but when Millie starts locking herself in her room and blasting deathcore, adults tend to dismiss it as an annoying phase she'll grow out. That, in fact, is the problem. Millie may be suffering far more than the adults in her life understand, and more than she even understands herself.
According to a report on Youth.gov, a staggering 49.5% of U.S. kids aged 13-17 met the diagnostic criteria for mental health disorders, with 31.9% of them experiencing anxiety disorders and 11.4% suffering from substance use disorders. And it gets worse. 22% of the kids in that study were classified as exhibiting severe impairment or distress, and 42% met the criteria for a second disorder. That's a whole lot of kids dealing with panic attacks during homeroom ... and a whole lot of adults telling them to just get over it.
"If you think it's tough now," say those adults, "just wait until you get older and have real stress in your life!" Only that's absolutely not how it works, you cranky old fart. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 25.8% of people aged 18-25 suffer from mental illness, and that number plummets as people get older, with those over age 50 reporting a relatively paltry 13.8%.
Part of the reason for the decline is that as people age, they tend to get better at seeking help. But people also develop their own coping strategies over time, and they even tend to "age out" of certain conditions, like substance addiction. As with our sex example above, practice does help. Somebody having their thousandth panic attack at age 45 can employ all sorts of techniques that start with, "OK, I'm having a panic attack." A 16-year-old having their first one thinks they're literally dying. Who do you think has it worse?
In fact, brain imaging shows that older people respond less to stressful imagery than younger people do, respond more to positive imagery than younger people do, and remember the positive imagery better than the negative. In other words, things definitely can get better for troubled kids if they can just get through it, but getting through it would be a lot easier if the grown-ups didn't treat it like a competition. ("When I was your age, I was in VIETNAM! My therapist was an M-60!")
Teens Are Chronically Sleep-Deprived, But No One Cares
No hacky sitcom family is complete without an ill-tempered, lazy-ass teenager who's always running late for school and sleeps until noon every weekend. This annoying stereotype exists for a reason: Teens really are sleepy all the damn time. But they're not lazy, they're freaking exhausted.
We humans enjoy a "golden age" of sleep in our late childhoods, falling asleep easily and at a decent hour. But then teens experience a cruel shift in their circadian rhythms known as a sleep phase delay, a natural rewiring of their body clock that makes it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. Teens require a good 8-10 hours of sleep to function at their best, but according to the National Sleep Foundation, only 15% of them get that much. A big reason is that adults stubbornly insist on starting school early.
In the evenings, teenagers may have jobs, sports, clubs, and other extracurricular activities, plus they've got hours of homework to do, and all these things can keep them up late. By the time they're "supposed" to be in bed, their brains are fizzing like shaken cans of Red Bull, and they'd rather stay up texting, playing video games, or basically doing anything but sleeping. Their alarm clocks go off before sunrise so they can make it to school at some ungodly time like 7:30 a.m., then they shuffle off to the bus stop in the dark feeling like zombies. It's only natural that they'd try to catch up by sleeping late on the weekends, but then it's even harder for them to fall asleep on Sunday night, and they wake up Monday morning feeling worse than ever.
This chronic lack of sleep can have dire consequences for teens, like learning difficulties, health problems, emotional disorders, and poor decision-making. To be fair to the old people who run the world, some schools occasionally do try later start times, allowing kids to get a little more precious sleep, and it's usually a spectacular success. So if it's such a great idea, surely it has to become more widespread soon, right? "What, and give in to those lazy teens? When I was a boy, we had to be up at 4 to feed the hogs!"
Even Colds And Allergies Are Worse For Young People
Somewhere right now, there's a middle-aged dude groaning his way toward his bed and telling his teenagers that they should appreciate their youthful, perfect health while they can. Once again, there are some rose-colored glasses at work there. Kids may have less arthritis and fewer hangovers to deal with, but they constantly feel like shit for other reasons.
For example, the average American child comes down with a whopping 6-10 colds per year. In some ways, that's not so surprising. All the stuff that adults gladly do to avoid the spread of contagious illnesses, like covering our mouths when we sneeze, washing our hands, and wiping our butts, kids refuse to do unless you bribe them with a damn cookie first. We pen kids up together all day at school, letting them run around the playground with their snotty noses and sticky fingers, and it'd be a wonder if they weren't sick all the time. The average daycare is basically an influenza factory.
But even if children weren't so gross and dopey about hygiene, they'd still probably get sick a lot. Kids are brand-new, after all, so their immune systems are untested, and they just aren't prepared for all the bugs out there. Children and teens are also developing their first allergies, and between all of those endless colds and hay fever, the ages between 5 and 16 can be a hacking, sneezing, headache-y hell.
Fortunately, we finally catch a break when we reach our 20s. Our immune systems are fully online, with all of the latest antiviruses installed, and our allergies improve. (Not for everyone, though -- scientists aren't sure why.) Adults usually only catch 2-4 colds per year, with the highest number going to young women (in other words, the majority of people teaching school and the hard-working moms who are bribing Junior with a cookie to wipe his damn nose).
We get a few short years of relief from our allergies, but then in our 30s they can come roaring back, worse than ever. They then tend to fade when people get older, and those over 60 average just one cold per year. Of course, their allergies are only fading because their immune systems are giving out, so if they do catch a nasty bug, they're a lot more likely to, you know, die from it. But hey, at least they don't have to spend their golden years snorting saltwater from a Neti pot.
Pain Hurts More For The Young
Do a Google image search for "chronic pain stock photo," and a lot of the results will feature doughy gray-haired folks (you know, Denny's Early Bird Special types) grimacing while they rub their aching lower backs. And perhaps that's not so surprising, since we tend to think of persistent pain as an old people thing.
But according to WebMD, more young adults report persistent pain than the elderly. 25% of adults aged 20-44 said they experienced pain lasting more than 24 hours, while just 21% of adults age 65 and older said the same. The results defy all expectations, but the National Institute of Health suggests that old people simply don't care about getting hurt, telling the elderly, "You may feel and recognize pain, but it does not bother you. For example, when you are injured, you may not know how severe the injury is because the pain does not trouble you." Jesus, how spooky is that? They make Grandma sound like a Terminator.
Of course, if you asked your elders how the heck they developed such a laissez faire attitude toward agony, they might try to convince you that they've been toughened up by the school of hard knocks. But the reality is partly that they simply have duller senses. Older people have less sensitive teeth, for example, so they can gulp down an icy cold IPA without whimpering like some millennial wuss.
Did you ever wonder why, when you go to visit your grandmother, she's got the heat cranked up high enough to peel the wallpaper? It's because, while older people are quite vulnerable in extreme weather, they have a reduced perception of hot and cold. So in the decades to come, as the planet continues to get hotter and hotter, until your grandkids are all groaning about the dog days of November, it's not unlikely that you'll hardly even feel it. You'll get to enjoy a nice comfy apocalypse, with no sniffles or debilitating neurosis, and lots of hot sex!
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