S2 Episode 20: Successful Aging

We’re all aging (if we’re lucky). But what does it mean to age successfully? Dr. Daniel Levitin – neuroscientist, author, musician – tries to answer the question in his new book, Successful Aging. Interviewing “seniors” famous and not, he found that successful aging has nothing to do with money or position. In part it’s being able to  look forward, no matter your age, and to continue to take pleasure in the world and your place in it. And the really good news? Our happiness increases as we age, successfully. 

Phil Stieg: Hello. I’d like to welcome to Dr. Daniel Levitin, bestselling author and a true Renaissance man, author of bestselling books, a musician with 17 gold and platinum records and an actor. He’s here today to discuss his most recent work, Successful Aging. Dan, this is a great pleasure to discuss in a positive way, something we all face. Thank you for being here.

Daniel Levitin: Oh, it’s a great pleasure to meet you and to spend time with you.  I’ve only been in a neurosurgery operating theatre once. I was hoping that I could see a thought in there, but I didn’t.

Phil Stieg: (Laugh) Well hopefully the surgeon was thinking!

Daniel Levitin: No, I meant in the patient.

Phil Stieg: Dan, can you clearly define what you view as successful aging?

Daniel Levitin: To me, successful aging isn’t whether you’ve got a big house or a lot of money, that’s not the definition of success.  Successful aging is being able to, across the lifespan, engage in activities that are meaningful to you and that bring you pleasure. I wrote the book because my parents turned 80 and they said, “you’re a fancy pants neuroscientist, do you have any advice for us?”

Phil Stieg: And you always did what your parents said, right?

Daniel Levitin: Exactly, and in fact I dedicated the book to my wife. The dedication is to my sweet wife, Heather, who never gets old.  I think the secret to our relationship is that we don’t take each other for granted and we don’t allow things to get old or routine.  And so far, so good. I think intimate relationships are something that many of us struggle with.  They do take work and they are one of the most important predictors of how you’re going to fare not just in old age, but at any point in your life.

 Phil Stieg: Before we get into the book, what do you view as unsuccessful aging?

Daniel Levitin: Well, with the obvious things are that you spend years towards the end of your life not being able to take pleasure from anything in life, whatever that is. As my friend Rodney Crowell says, “you’re staring down the barrel of the choices that you’ve made, you know, that have left you in a place you didn’t want to be.”  I think the point of the book for me, the purpose in writing it, which grew even clearer to me as I read the thousands of papers that went into it, is that these are all things that are under your control. You can’t control what life is going to throw at you, but you can control how you react to it.

Phil Stieg: Exactly. I think an important point to a very relevant to me as I get older is you want to redefine age. My limit for middle age is getting older and older.  And actually, in actuality, you know, when I first started in neurosurgery, 65 was, you know, an old age and now 65 is middle aged. And I’m still talking to people who are complex interventions because they’ve got another 20 or 30 years left.  So how have you redefined age for us?  Is it is it an age, a number, or is it a behavioral, emotional state?

Daniel Levitin: One can distinguish between actual chronological age (that’s the number of years that you’ve lived on the planet) and your effective biological age.  You know, you could be a 60-year-old with a 40-year old’s mind and body or an 80-year old’s mind and body. That’s the biological age. It has to do with senescence.  It has to do with neuroplasticity. I think the big message for me in terms of how to define aging is to explode the societal narrative that at a certain point, everything simply begins to fall apart. You asked how we can redefine aging. I think one surefire way is for young people and old people to spend more time together – challenging yourself to have conversations with people who are of different backgrounds, different experience and different age groups.

Phil Stieg: That’s one of things I particularly appreciated in your book was the fact that the I’ve always enjoyed being around older people. And when I was younger, I found that particularly fulfilling, and it also helped me prepare for maturing. And now I love being around young kids because just the way they think and the value systems that they have are so much different. It’s personally challenging, but, as you say, it’s good for us.

Daniel Levitin: It’s neuroprotective.  Each time you encounter a new idea, you try to reach some position of rapprochement with another set of principles. You try to negotiate the landscape of a different worldview,  you’re forming new neural pathways and those pathways continue to grow and build your entire life. It’s a myth that we stop doing that.

Phil Stieg: What about conscientiousness? Is that about your health? Is it about what subject or just conscienceless in general?

Daniel Levitin: Conscientiousness refers to a cluster of traits having to do with stick-to-it-tiveness and reliability, dependability, to some extent, being rule abiding and exercising self-control, delayed gratification.  It turns out – I found this very counterintuitive – but the single biggest predictor for how a person’s life is going to turn out is how conscientious they are.

Phil Stieg: It’s kind of another word for integrity, right?

Daniel Levitin: Integrity’s part of it, the personal integrity, doing the right thing when no one’s looking. Yeah, but also looking after yourself, you know, a conscientious kid isn’t going to cross against the light and get hit by a bus.  And a conscientious adult, well, they’ll follow at least basic rules of society and not end up in prison, which is bad for your health.

Phil Stieg: Well, I find it interesting that the also that you say that the concept of memory loss coming with age is really a myth. Thank you for saying that.

Daniel Levitin: Did I say that? I can’t remember.

Phil Stieg: You did. And so I was kind of wondering whether this is whether you really feel that way. And the way you rationalize that was you said that it’s because with age, we have more to remember.  And boy  I grabbed onto that. So whenever I can’t remember somebody’s name is like, oh, I’m thinking other great thoughts right now, you know?

Daniel Levitin: Well, think of it by analogy. We subscribed to the newspaper here in my house. So we get The New York Times delivered every day. If the front page is sitting on the table, it’s easy for me to find it. If I get backed up and there’s two weeks’ worth of front pages there, it just takes a little longer to find it’s in there.  And memory kind of works that way.

Phil Stieg: So one of the things I like to do on this show is dispel myths. And, you know, one of the myths is that as we age, we get a little bit more depressed. And the statistics that you talked about were compelling and remarkable. Can you tell us when is the happiest age in life?

Daniel Levitin: Well, based on a survey of tens of thousands of people in 70 different countries, that’s quite a cross-section. The survey was done almost 10 years ago, and the peak age of happiness people reported was 82.  And I suspect that that’s an underestimate that, you know, in the 10 years since then that has inched up and I suspect that we could push it up even further if together you and I and our listeners could work towards abolishing ageism – one of the last prejudices that is not being dealt with on a societal level; the marginalization of older adults.

Phil Stieg: Yeah, yeah, but it was also surprising is that happiness increases starting at the age of 54, which is young, you know, so I mean, nowadays that’s almost half of your life. You’re progressively getting happier.

Daniel Levitin: Starting in the mid-50s, the amygdala begins to shrink – the so-called fear center of the brain.  And so older adults in part are happier because they’re less fearful, they’re more trusting.  There are neurochemical changes. The ability of the brain to modulate various mood chemicals changes, some at the expense of others. And older adults tend to feel more gratitude.

Phil Stieg: That crosses over into your other suggestion regarding the importance of maintaining your circadian rhythms, keep your routines.

Daniel Levitin: This is my favorite part of the book and I had to actually fight with my editor to get it in because I wanted to talk about the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is…

Phil Stieg: …so that the people know the chiasm is where the optic nerves cross. And this is an area in the brain that Dan is referring to.

Daniel Levitin: Yes. And it turns out that, you know, the body’s timekeeper is there.  That part of the circuitry that regulates the bevy of biological clocks we have going that signal when to release certain hormones and chemicals that will wake us up or help us digest our food or go to sleep. And normally this thing takes cues from the environment like daylight. It keeps track of when you ate and if those things are regularized, it’s very happy and things function well. When you’re young,  your 30s and 40s, certainly in your 20s, it’s resilient enough that you can stay up all night and it doesn’t care, but the circuitry starts to degrade and it becomes less like a  Swiss watch and more like an old rusty timepiece, and if it gets out of whack, it can take weeks to get back on track, which suggests regularity in your schedule is very important.

Phil Stieg: Earlier you talked about community. You know, I like my solitude.  I have actually found that COVID in some strange way is kind of nice. It’s  forcing me to not go out as much, sit home, read a good book, listen to classical music.

Daniel Levitin: Loneliness is entirely subjective.  You can feel lonely when you’re in a crowded room surrounded by people and you can feel very not lonely when you’re alone with a good book or a good piece of music or just your own thoughts. You can just sort of trust your instinct about how much social contact you need. Pretty much after the age of 60 with every decade. We’re less likely to want to try new things, we’re less likely to want to meet new people or for that matter, go to new restaurants.  That has to do, I think, with reductions in dopamine modulation, dopamine is the exploratory hormone, teenagers probably have too much of it.

Phil Stieg: But also pleasure and happiness, right?

Daniel Levitin: Absolutely right. It gives us a sense of reward and pleasure after we’ve explored.   I think we have to push back and decide, make a deliberate choice. After the age of 60, I’m going to try new things. I don’t want to be one of those people who get stuck, and that includes socialization.

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Narrator: Looking for more advice on how to age successfully?  In this episode of “This Is Your Brain, The Guided Tour”, let’s take a moment to hear from some notable people who have enjoyed living into their 10th decade or more.

Legendary comedian George Burns always lived his life with a sense of gratitude, opening his stand-up act by saying- “It’s nice to be here … When you’re 100 years old it’s nice to be anywhere…”

Former president Jimmy Carter often quoted a wise friends’ advice:  “We worry too much about having something to live on – and too little about having something to live for.”

Ragtime pianist and Broadway composer Eubie Blake was active as a performer well into his late 90’s.  Old Age seemed to have caught him by surprise, as he often said, “If I had known I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself!”

Then again, other centenarians seem to frown on the idea of caution…  Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, (who lived to be nearly one hundred and two) once put it this way:

“Wouldn’t it be terrible if you’d spent all your life doing everything you were supposed to do, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t eat things, took lots of exercise, and suddenly, one day, you were run over by a big red bus?  And, as the wheels were crunching into you, you’d say, ‘Oh my God, I could have got soooo drunk last night!’  She concluded her story saying, “That’s the way you should live your life, as if tomorrow you’ll be run over by a big red bus.”

While we here at This Is Your Brain The Guided Tour encourage everyone to celebrate a joyous old age – please, don’t go out to play in traffic!

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Phil Stieg: All right. I need some bragging rights with my kids. You say that as I’m getting older, I’m getting better.  All right. You don’t know me. We’ve never met. I want you to point out what I’m better at because I tell you, my joints hurt. I can’t run as fast and I can jump as high as my kids.

Daniel Levitin: And it probably takes you longer to retrieve a memory.

Phil Stieg: Sometimes…(laugh)

Daniel Levitin: A name, perhaps, or you might walk into the kitchen and wonder why you went there. All of us experienced that at all ages.  We’re just a little more… sensitive about it when we’re older, because we think it means something and it usually doesn’t.  But what older adults are better at is three big things:  experiencing gratitude, experience and compassion for others and a more cognitive thing, which is pattern matching. The brain is a giant pattern detector, it seeks to find order and impose structure on a chaotic world.

Phil Stieg: Is that wisdom?

Daniel Levitin: Yeah, it is.  It’s certainly a healthy component of wisdom, so just by virtue of having lived a long time and seen a lot of different things, you’re able to look at something that a young person might find novel and say, I’ve seen that before. That’s why you’re a better neurosurgeon than a 30-year-old. It’s why radiologists in particular, whose job is pattern matching – these little blobs on slides are either cancer or they’re not. I’d much rather have an 80-year-old radiologist than a 30 year old.

Phil Stieg: Ditto, ditto, couldn’t agree more. So I’m presuming that in the process of writing this book, you’ve interviewed hundreds, if not thousands of people as they’ve aged.  And you certainly looked at a lot of surveys. What have you noted that people who are aging successfully are most surprised by?

Daniel Levitin: Thank you for that.  Well, I think I’ll define aging successfully again as not being wealthy necessarily or living in a big house.  Aging successfully is being able to continue doing the things that you love doing and continue to derive pleasure from them.  What I found overwhelmingly that surprised me is that people who do that, whether they’re 80 or 90 or 100. Never stopped working. They might have retired from one thing, but then they retired to another, their they, as Jane Goodall told me, go, go, go, 84 years old, she’s got a punishing schedule of touring.  You know, she’s no longer doing primary primatology work –in the field, but she’s going around and motivating kids to join the cause for climate change.

Phil Stieg: Mm hmm.

Daniel Levitin: Go, go, go. She says, don’t stop. Don’t look back.  Of course it’s important to look back and learn from your mistakes, but if you ruminate about them too much, it turns into a kind of negative spiral. A vicious cycle of recrimination and regret. And that’s toxic for the brain.

 Phil Stieg: Mm hmm.

Daniel Levitin: Looking forward is good because it causes you to plan so that you’ve got food in the house and you’ve got a mask to wear when you go outside.  And you look forward to a call, as I did to today, it gave me some reason to get out of bed and some purpose.  But you don’t want to look forward too much because it takes you out of the moment. One of the people I interviewed for the book was the Dalai Lama, and he spends a lot of time trying to be in the moment. Just as part of his Buddhist ethos and his own proclivities.  We talked about what happiness is, and we came to an agreement that happiness isn’t something you usually say, I’m happy right now because you’re too busy being happy. It’s a retrospective judgment. And if you ruminate about it, it’s gone.

Phil Stieg: But as part of looking forward, a distinction from the individual who you know, I remember when I did that when I’m 20 and they’re kind of depressed. So they’re more backward looking. Is that the distinction you’re trying to draw?

Daniel Levitin: I think planning is important.  I think it’s important to have plans to have a schedule, particularly in the lockdown, where so many of the external constraints of our lives have been removed.  I no longer have a commute time. How am I going to use that time? I get an extra 40 minutes a day now.  What am I going to do with it? Am I just going to let it meld into all the other stuff or am I going to set out to carve out 40 days to do something I never would have done before?

Phil Stieg: I hope you’re exercising more.

Daniel Levitin: I’m not only doing that, but I started to deliberately… I’d never taken piano lessons, but I’m teaching myself now.

Phil Stieg: Dan Levitin, I can’t express to you how pleased I am to have you on the show.  I think that what you say is common sensical. It’s not self-motivated. It’s outwardly motivated. And it’s helpful to all of us because we’re all aging. Thank you for taking the time to be with us

Daniel Levitin: Thank you for having me on the show.