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Why Does Time Fly as You Age?

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A woman, stationary on a crosswalk as people move past her, looking down to her smartphone

How you experience the passage of time changes over the years, as well as with how you spend your time. For an older adult whose day-to-day experiences may be largely routine, months and years might seem to pass quickly. To a child or teen experiencing many new things in few short years, the passage of time feels longer.

That’s significant for older adults particularly because loneliness and isolation raise the risk of serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, weakened immune function, depression, anxiety, cognitive decline and dementia.

Time and Quality of Life

The passage of time is directly related to quality of life. A life filled with variety and new experiences affects your mood and your personal well-being.

The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, distorted the passage of time for many people. Studies found that people who were older and socially isolated felt a slower sense of time. Time awareness was strongly associated with emotions such as loneliness.

Some studies have looked at how our brains track the passage of time. Researchers have found that the neurotransmitter dopamine – which is associated with new experiences and pleasure – influences how we perceive time.

The dopamine effect helps explain why time moves slowly when you’re bored or watching the clock. It also explains why time moves fast when you’re absorbed in an enjoyable activity like playing sports or music, or when you’re busy.

Yet, a paradox exists: When you fill your time with new and interesting experiences, the hours whizz by. But in memory, it may feel much longer than time spent doing routine things. For example, you might remember every day of that special vacation last year, but not remember anything about an ordinary week that followed.

How to Make Time Feel Fuller, Prevent Loneliness

One thing is clear: Filling your days with meaningful activity is good for overall health and well-being. Engaging socially or with a hobby, class or volunteer activity will stretch out your perception of time and help buffer against loneliness and isolation.

The National Institute on Aging offers these tips:

  • Stay as healthy as possible by exercising, eating well, getting enough sleep and pursuing activities you enjoy.
  • Restart an old hobby, take a class at a public library or community center to learn something new. Join a walking club.
  • Schedule time each day to stay in touch with family, friends and neighbors in person, by email, social media, phone call, video chat or text.
  • Consider adopting a pet if you are able to care for them. Animals can be a source of comfort and may also lower stress and blood pressure.
  • Find a faith-based organization where you can deepen your spirituality and engage with others in activities and events.
  • Join a cause and get involved in your community.

Related Links

The Geriatric Services team at University Hospitals is dedicated to helping our patients live healthy, productive lives by improving their function, independence, well-being, comfort and quality of life. Learn more.

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