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Kick Off the New Year with “Successful Aging”

Successful Aging book coverYou may be familiar with Daniel Levitin through his first book, This is Your Brain on Music (2006), which spent over a year on The New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into 18 languages.

Dr. Levitin is coming to Seattle on a book tour in January! His newest book, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives, will be available January 7. Dr. Levitin will talk about his discoveries, discoveries that translate into relevant, useful and actionable knowledge for the rest of us, at a free public event at The Seattle Public Library on the evening of Thursday, January 16.

As reflected in the “Notes” section of Successful Aging, Levitin reviewed around 4,000 papers from peer-reviewed scientific literature. To his credit, he has synthesized and organized the material thoughtfully to help readers find encouragement, clarity, and answers around how best to make the most of growing older.

Role models for successful aging

When asked what inspired him to write about aging, a departure from his other books, Dr. Levitin reflected that “as a college professor, I am around people of all ages, from 17 to 101—yes, my colleague Dr. Brenda Milner at the Montreal Neurological Institute just turned 101. I noticed that some people tend to age better than others and, as a neuroscientist, this made me curious to find out why.”

It is probably fair to assume that we all have had older adults in our lives that have served as guides on how to age successfully. Levitin has many examples in addition to Dr. Milner, including his own parents. Levitin reflects in the book that “[A]s I’ve grown older myself and have spent more time with people who are in the last quarter of their lives, I’ve seen a different side of aging. My parents are now in their mid-eighties and are as engaged in life as they have ever been …They look old, but they feel like the same people they were fifty years ago, and that amazes me.”

While Levitin doesn’t minimize the changes and losses that occur as we age, he does make a compelling, evidence-based argument that older age is its own developmental stage, like infancy and adolescence—and that brings unique advantages and demands. He encourages us to plan thoughtfully for old age, as the average life expectancy continues to increase.

The Myth of Failing Memory

Surprising discoveries were made along the way while researching the book. “The myth of failing memory is one,” says Levitin, a myth he addresses throughout the book. “I’m not saying that older adults don’t have ‘senior moments’ or that we don’t forget; I’m just saying it’s not nearly as bad as we think it is. I have 20-year-olds in my classes who are losing their cell phones, keys, forgetting passwords, showing up on the wrong day for an exam—real memory problems. The difference is the story we tell ourselves. At 20, we say ‘I guess I’m not getting enough sleep’ or ‘I have too much on my plate.’ At 70, we say, ‘OMG, this must be Alzheimer’s.’ Same behaviors (minus the classroom exams), different explanations.”

Life expectancy continues to increase. In the United States, the average lifespan is 78.6 years—81.1 for women and 76.1 for men. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “the age group 85 and older is now the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. The growth of the U.S. population age 65 and older exceeds that of the total population and the popula­tion under age 65. Lower birth rates and increased longevity have led to this rapid growth not just in the United States but across the world.”

Sixty-plus: A New Period for Development

Recognizing that most of us will live well into our 70s, possibly 80s, 90s and beyond, it makes sense to make the most of those years. A consistent thread of thought and encouragement throughout Successful Aging is for everyone to change the conversation about aging, to approach and plan for this new period for development in our lives.

“We often look at old age as a time of limitations, infirmities and sadness. Of course, it’s true that as we get older there are a number of things we don’t do as well as when we were younger. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all older adults are sad, or depressed … Happiness tends to decrease beginning in the late thirties and then begins to increase sharply after age 54.”

Insights into why some of us age better than others can be gleaned from Successful Aging, insights that can be directly implemented into our own lives to help create a path for creativity, better health, and a renewed sense of purpose.

Photo of Dr. Daniel Levitin by Larry Moran.

Photo of Dr. Daniel Levitin by Larry Moran.

Tips for Rejuvenating Your Brain

With that in mind, let’s embrace Dr. Levitin’s Top Ten Tips for Rejuvenating Your Brain (and aging successfully) to make the most of our longevity:

  1. Don’t retire, or if you do, take up volunteering or hobbies. Don’t stop being engaged in meaningful work.
  2. Look forward, don’t look back—reminiscing doesn’t protect health.
  3. Exercise—get your heart rate going, preferably in nature.
  4. Embrace a moderated lifestyle with healthy practices.
  5. Keep your social circle exciting and new.
  6. Spend time with people younger than you.
  7. See your doctor regularly, but not obsessively.
  8. Don’t think of yourself as old.
  9. Appreciate your cognitive strengths, including pattern recognition, crystallized intelligence, wisdom, and accumulated knowledge.
  10. Cognitive transfer results from experimental thinking, travel, spending time with grandchildren, and immersion in new activities.

What are your plans for optimizing your last quarter of life? What changes do you intend to make to age successfully? Join me in embracing this period of life as an opportunity to learn new things, make new friends, get outside, engage in physical activity, make that doctor’s appointment, and celebrate your age and the experience and wisdom that comes with it.

Keri PollockContributor Keri Pollock directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom, a care management practice based in Seattle. She serves on the Frye Art Museum’s Creative Aging Programs Advisory Committee, a co-sponsor of Dr. Levitin’s talk at Seattle Central Library.