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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives
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Everyone would like to age like fine wine - yet, not all of us enjoy that privilege. Why do some people age better than others? What can we do to age well? In ‘’Successful Aging,’’ Daniel J. Levitin uses neuroscientific and psychological research to find answers to these and numerous other aging-related questions. His ultimate aim is to help us think differently about the last decades of our lives - not as a period of decay, but as a developmental stage that brings plenty of positive changes. So, get ready to hear how you can age better!
People experience aging differently. Some suffer from chronic diseases, pain, and struggle with vision, hearing, or memory loss. Others lose the sense of life’s purpose, fall into depression, or count the days until they can walk away from it all. However, there is also a different side of aging, and Levitin says his parents can be its representatives. Although in their mid-80s, they are as engaged with life as they have ever been. They have social interactions, spiritual pursuits, spend time in nature, take up new hobbies and professional projects. They have lost some of their physical abilities but have also learned how to compensate for them. Their life-long experience has them feeling less fearful and more resilient. At the same time, they are comfortable with the idea of their death and are no longer scared of it. ‘’They’ve lived full lives and treat each new day as an opportunity for new experiences,’’ Levitin adds.
People generally perceive aging differently than this. The above-mentioned aging issues are some of the reasons why this period is often seen negatively, and this negative perception is often culturally driven. In the 1960s, for example, despite the propagation of peace and tolerance, youngsters disrespected older generations, expressing the aversion to aging through lyrics, such as: “I hope I die before I get old.”
One form of ageism persists in the belief that people over 65 should not work anymore. However, the common notion that younger people are more valuable to businesses compared to the elderly is unfounded. Levitin says that people at 65 and older are probably better at their jobs than when they were younger because of pattern-matching circuits in the brain that improve with experience. If people over 65 were not discriminated against in this manner, their active engagement would increase the levels of mood-enhancing hormones (such as serotonin and dopamine), the production of NK (natural killer), and T cells that strengthen immune systems and cellular repair mechanisms.
The consequences of neglecting the elderly are enormous for economic and artistic productivity, family relations, and they lead to diminished opportunities as well. Therefore, our society should adopt a different vision of old age, one which sees the elderly as a resource rather than a burden.
As people get older, the systems in their brain age as well, causing a decline in numerous abilities. You might think that the reason why some of us age better than others is connected with how fast or to what degree our abilities weaken. However, Levitin says that the determinant of how well we age does not have anything to do with any cognitive or emotional factors, but with something we are born with, and something we can change - our personalities and individual choices.
The idea that people can change their personalities might seem odd to you. The truth is, developmental science has shown over the past few years that people, even older adults, can meaningfully change. In fact, this idea is the foundation of modern psychotherapy. People seek help from psychiatrists and psychologists because they want to change their personalities or lifestyles all the time.
Levitin says that by changing certain personality traits, we can improve the quality of our aging. According to him, if you want to increase your chances of aging well, you should raise your conscientiousness. Conscientious people are more likely to get regular medical checkups, follow doctor’s advice and keep up with their professional, family, and financial commitments. Levitin even says that ‘’conscientiousness has been linked to lower all-cause mortality.’’ If you want to become more conscientious, you can try out different methods that have proven to be successful, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or reading self-help books.
Another trait that predicts longevity is optimism. ‘’Smile, think positive thoughts, and try new things,’’ writes Levitin. ‘’A cheerful, positive, optimistic outlook - even if it starts out fake - can end up becoming real.’’ Bear in mind, though, that too much optimism can lead to bad health outcomes. If you’re unrealistically optimistic, you might, for example, ignore that dark spot on your forehead and not have it checked for cancer.
Finally, compassion is also related to a longer and better life. This is generally because compassionate people are less stressed, and stress reduction is one of the most important things you can do to enhance your overall health.
Before exploring some techniques that can help aging people deal with memory loss, let’s see how our memory functions. First of all, our memory is complex. It is composed of many different systems, some of which are more robust, allowing us to preserve more accurate memories, while others are more affected by emotion, and are therefore inconsistent.
Spatial memory is a system that keeps track of where we are in the world. When we perform tasks without conscious awareness, such as turning a faucet on and off, we use procedural memory. Short-term memory keeps track of what you were thinking 30 seconds ago. Memory can also be implicit - containing things we know without being aware of, and explicit - containing conscious recollections of experiences and facts.
When we experience memory failures, they happen to one of these systems rather than the memory system as a whole. Take people suffering from amnesia-induced disorientation as an example. They cannot remember where they are or what year it is, but still know how to use a fork, read, and are excited to see food they love.
Two brain regions - the hippocampus and the medial temporal lobe - are the ones that shrink and decay with age and Alzheimer’s disease. They are responsible for forming some kinds of explicit memory but do not create the implicit one. The hippocampus is also necessary for spatial memory and, therefore, damage to this and the temporal lobe regions can lead to disorientation and getting lost.
Apart from damages to memory caused by shrinkage and decay of the hippocampus and medial temporal lobe, other things disrupt our memory, regardless of our age. Since it depends on concentration, distractions such as a telephone ringing or a new thought can disrupt short-term memory. It has probably happened to you while you were trying to memorize the sequence of numbers or, for example, some lyrics. One moment of distraction led you to forget almost everything you had learned by then.
Our autobiographical memory is also prone to distortions at any age. It is because it is goal-oriented - it reshapes memory to be consistent with our goals and perspectives. Therefore, to form a more compelling narrative, we often corrupt the original memories, telling ourselves and others stories that are different from what actually happened.
We tend to feel more panic upon forgetting things as we get older - not just because memory is crucial for our normal functioning, but also because memories tell us who we are. Imagine living with no memories - you would not know whether you liked chocolate or not, or whether clowns amused you or terrified you. It would be as if you were constantly experiencing everything for the first time. Moreover, memories may comfort us, and the feelings they invoke are intimate and personal.
Understanding how memory systems work can help us determine whether our forgetting is something we should worry about, and if it is, what techniques we can use to minimize its effects.
For short-term memory problems, we should train our attentional network. We can do this by slowing down and practicing mindfulness. Additionally, we should do mono-tasking instead of multitasking whenever possible. These techniques will help us focus on storing things with clarity and increased precision. Next, we can also externalize information we are likely to forget by writing it down.
There are some mobile apps available for building memory, such as Neurotrack, created by a team of scientists at Stanford, the Karolinska Institute, and Cornell.
You can also develop your own techniques that compensate for weakened memory. For instance, 63-year old filmmaker Jeffrey Kimball has a mental checklist of five things he always has when he leaves the house - reading glasses, wallet, keys, cell phone, binoculars (he is an avid bird-watcher). And he always puts the wallet and keys inside his shoes by the door when he gets home.
But, does age-related memory impairment exist? “If it exists at all,’’ says neuroscientist Sonia Lupien, ‘’it’s much less than people think.’’ Why? As they usually increase the cortisol levels among participants, the experiments that test age-related memory loss are not objective. One of the reasons for cortisol increase is unfavorable environments where testing usually takes place. Furthermore, these experiments include big stressors such as novelty, unpredictability, lack of control, and threat to ego.
For more objective results, examiners should consider these factors. For example, older adult participants can come into the laboratory for a get-acquainted visit before the testing day. They should also be encouraged to take some refreshments to get over the stress they are experiencing.
American record producer Quincy Jones, aged 86, is still actively involved in producing music, discovering talents, giving speeches, and being a public spokesperson for the importance of the arts in society. Lamont Dozier, co-writer of famous songs such as ‘’Heat Wave,’’ ‘’Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” is 79 years old and still dedicated to writing every day for an hour or two.
In the United States, between 25% and 40% of people who retire reenter the workforce. The economists even created the term “unretirement” to refer to this group of people. If we recall Freud’s words that love and meaningful work are the two most important things to have in life, it is understandable why so many people decide to go back to work after retirement. Time spent with purpose is associated with happiness and longevity. Levitin says his father became depressed and began to suffer physical ailments after his firm strongly encouraged him to retire when he was 62. Fortunately, he managed to find another job as a teacher at the USC Marshall School of Business. ‘’That was twenty-five years ago,’’ Levitin writes. ‘’My father just signed a four-year renewal to teach until he’s eighty-nine.’’ Once he found meaningful work, his depression decreased, along with his physical ailments. Levitin also adds that people between the ages of 70 and 98 he interviewed to find out what contributes to life satisfaction all continued working after retirement.
So, to live longer and better, stay busy! If your job does not allow you to continue working after a certain age, or if you cannot find another job, there are lots of ways to stay actively engaged by doing meaningful activities. You can, for example, join the Head Start organization that allows older people to come and read to underprivileged children. You can also join or host a book or current events discussion club, volunteer in a hospital or church, or take classes online via platforms such as Coursera or Khan Academy.
People usually dread getting old mostly because their perspective on aging is dark. Thanks to Levitin’s insights and sound advice, we can stop despairing over lost years of life and embrace aging because of the numerous possibilities it offers.
Ben Folds, bestselling author of ‘’A Dream About Lightning Bugs,’’ describes ‘’Successful Aging’’ as ‘’an inspiring, hopeful, and useful message - expounding on the best lessons science and art can teach us about how to expand your potential as you age.”
If you wish to learn how you can become more conscientious, read the microbook ‘’Getting Things Done’’ by David Allen. It will teach you how to be more organized and self-disciplined.
Daniel J. Levitin is a psychology professor, neuroscientist, writer, musician, and record producer. He also founded Arts & Humanities at the Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute in California. He is the author of several bestsellers, including ‘’This Is Your Brain on Music,’’ ‘’The World in Six Songs,’’... (Read more)
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