A neuroscientist explains how our brains age and provides tips for aging with more vitality and happiness.
About 13 years ago, I watched my very vital mother die a slow death from Lewy-Body dementia. For me, it was a wakeup call. If there were anything I could do to stay healthy myself—to avoid the slow decline of an aging brain—I wanted to do it.
But what really helps us stay sharp longer? And how can we separate fad ideas from solid, evidence-based advice around aging?
Enter Daniel Levitin’s new book, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives.
Levitin is a neuroscientist, psychologist, professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal, and faculty fellow at UC Berkeley.
His highly researched book provides fascinating insights into how our early childhood experiences, personalities, social relationships, and lifestyles all drive our brain’s development, dispelling stubborn myths around the inevitability of cognitive decline.
Arguing against ageism and highlighting the unique gifts of older people, Levitin shows us what we can all do to become sharper, happier, and wiser as we age.
I spoke with Levitin recently about his book and what we can learn from it. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Jill Suttie: What neuroscience finding about aging and the brain most surprised you?
Daniel Levitin: Well, there are so many! But one is the myth of failing memory. Although some people do have failing memory, it’s not inevitable—everybody doesn’t experience memory decay.
Sometimes the difference is in the stories we tell ourselves.
When I taught at Berkeley and McGill, I had 19-year-olds who were losing cell phones all the time or losing their glasses or showing up at the wrong classroom or forgetting what day the exam was.
When you’re 70, you might miss appointments, too, or find yourself in the kitchen and not know why you’re there or forget names or lose your cell phone.
But, while the 20-year old says, “Gee, I’ve got to get more than five hours of sleep,” or “I have a lot on my plate,” at 70 you think you must have Alzheimer’s. It’s the same behavior, just a different narrative.
JS: You write in your book that one of the key determinants of a happy, productive life is personality, and that we can actually change our personality. How do we do that?
DL: Statistically speaking, the two most important personality correlates that predict successful aging is conscientiousness and openness to experience. Conscientiousness is a cluster of traits that has to do with dependability, reliability, doing what you’ll say you’ll do, being proactive. A conscientious person calls the doctor when they’re sick and, when the doctor prescribes medication, actually takes it.
We might take these things for granted, you and me; but a lot of people don’t do those things. A conscientious person tends not to live beyond their means, and they put aside a little money for a rainy day or for retirement. All those things correlate with living a healthy and long life.
Openness is being willing to try new things and being open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.
That’s increasingly important as we age, because we have a tendency to want to not do new things—to just do the things we’ve always done—and that can cause a more rapid cognitive decline. We just have to be aware and fight the complacency to do the same thing.
It’s important to surround ourselves with new people—young people—and to try new things. Not dangerous things, but new things.
In terms of conscientiousness, sometimes a life event will push you to it—like being given a diabetes diagnosis, where you actually have to change your lifestyle or die.
And, as you know at the Greater Good Science Center, therapy works. Not all therapists work well with every patient, but we now know from a hundred years of psychotherapy you can change your personality at any age. That’s what psychotherapy is.
JS: Many of us know exercise is good for our hearts and brains. But you recommend specific ways to exercise to keep your brain young—like hiking—which require navigation skills. Why?
DL: Robotic exercise is certainly good—I have an elliptical trainer and I use it. I like getting my heart rate up and oxygenating the blood. And that’s good for the brain. But mostly that’s about heart health.
If you’re talking about brain health, the hippocampus—the brain structure that mediates memory—evolved for geo-navigation, to help us remember where we are going, so that we can move toward food and mates and away from danger. If we don’t keep that part exercised, we do so at our own peril. The hippocampus can atrophy.
Being outside is good, because anything can happen. You have to stay on your toes to some degree. Near us, there’s Tilden Park, and most of the trails up there are not paved. So, you’re encountering twigs and roots and rocks and creatures; you’ve got low limbs that you have to duck under. All that kind of stuff is essential to keeping a brain young.
If you can’t walk—if you’re in a wheelchair, for example—even navigating under your own locomotion is very helpful, if you can do it. And there’s some evidence now that virtual reality environments exercise the brain to some degree, as well.
JS: What about dietary advice? Do any supplements or particular diets help us age well?
DL: Having now spent a lot of time looking into all the peer-reviewed papers on diet and talking to people who are deep in the nutrition and eating field, I can say that there is no magic diet. And it kind of makes sense that there isn’t, because there are hundreds of different diets, and if one of them was clearly superior to the others, we’d know about it by now.
The best advice around diet comes from Michael Pollan of UC Berkeley: Eat a variety of foods and eat more plants than you probably are eating.
It would be folly to say that you should never have ice cream, or that you should eliminate carbs or animal fats. Fats are essential for myelinating neurons and for building up amino acids in the brain. So all of them in moderation are an important part of a healthy diet.
JS: A lot of older adults suffer from aches and pains, sometimes chronic. In your book, you write that how we suffer from pain is in part determined by what the pain means to us. Can you explain why that’s relevant to dealing with pain as we age?
DL: It has to do with the neuroscience of pain. If you’ve got a rock in your shoe, that can be very unpleasant, right? But, if you’re on a massage table and somebody applies the exact same pressure in the exact same spot, you wouldn’t find it unpleasant. Again, it comes around to the stories we tell ourselves about our pain.
Chronic pain that doesn’t seem to have a reason and that you can’t seem to do anything about is debilitating. But [Buddhist] monks and others practiced in meditation have been able to overcome even that. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt anymore; but you can get to the point where it doesn’t aggravate you.
In fact, a study recently showed that monks who’d meditated more than 20,000 hours could prepare themselves for impending pain and not be distressed by it. Any of us can practice some mind-training techniques—whether it’s yoga or meditation or anything that works for you.
Now, there’s certainly some pain that isn’t amenable to that, and there are a lot of people in chronic pain, and it can be terrible.
The fact is that medicine is very bad at treating chronic pain. That’s an important frontier that we need to address.
As I point out in the book, the vast majority of the funding for medical research goes into keeping people alive longer, not keeping people healthier or happier longer. And that’s a problem.
JS: What about the role of gratitude in aging well?
DL: Gratitude is probably the most under-used emotion and the most misunderstood. It works at any age.
The key to happiness according to many—including the Nobel prize winner Herb Simon and Warren Buffet, the Oracle of Omaha—is to be happy with what you have. Simon called it “satisficing.”
You don’t have to have the best of everything. You just have to have enough.
If you can be grateful for what you have, not fixated on what you don’t have, you’re a happy person. If you’re constantly looking at what you don’t have, you’re not. Now there’s a certain amount of striving that’s important—in order to get things done and to be productive. But you have to reach a happy balance.
JS: You argue in the book that older people have particular cognitive strengths. Can you talk about those?
DL: In general, older people have acquired more information and experienced more just because they’ve lived longer. That leads to an increased ability to extract patterns—to see similarities in circumstances and situations—which can lead to better decision-making and better problem-solving.
I always say that if you’ve got to go to a radiologist—because you found a growth or something—you want a 70-year-old radiologist reading the x-ray, not a 30 year old. You want somebody who’s had lots of experience and a lot of feedback on his or her readings being accurate.
Also, though there’s no official definition of wisdom, I and many people in the field believe that wisdom is the ability to use previous experiences and pattern matching to predict new outcomes or to defuse situations and use good judgment. Again, this relies on experience.
JS: In your book, you use the acronym COACH: conscientiousness, openness, affiliations, curiosity, and healthy lifestyle. We’ve talked about many of those elements already. Would you say that these are the essential keys to successful aging?
DL: Well, if you haven’t read the book, that sounds a little superficial—like the advice you’ve been given all along. If you have read the book, I think it takes on new depth and meaning.
But, yeah, working on being conscientious, being open to new experiences, keeping your associations with others active, especially young people, being curious, and following healthy practices—which include diet, good sleep hygiene, and movement—are all important.
It’s also good to remember that people tend to get happier after age 50. In over 60 countries, happiness peaks for people when they’re in their 80s. We tend to think, Oh God, when I’m 80, I’m going to be miserable, and we all know some 80-year-olds who are miserable.
But the data and statistics show that’s not the norm. People actually are happier as they age, in general.
The bigger picture is that, as a society, we need to change the conversation about aging and stop marginalizing older adults. We need to create a society in which older people are valued for their experience and integrated more into daily life. It’s a great untapped resource.