Ageing: how to do it better

“If I had known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

There is an important truth in this saying. People in many countries are living longer than ever before. Surviving into your 80s, 90s and beyond is no longer unusual. However, quality of life in later years is not always the best due to dementia, disability, pain or loneliness. What can you do to ensure that your life is healthy for as long as possible?

            For the most comprehensive and up-to-date treatment available, turn to Daniel Levitin’s book Successful Aging, just published. Levitin is a neuroscientist who has written a number of books for general audiences. For Successful Aging, he said he examined more than 4000 scientific papers, many of which are listed in the back of the book. The main text, though, is free of academic apparatus. Levitin interviewed many individuals, including prominent ones like the Dalai Lama. His book is filled with anecdotes, quotes and stories as well as descriptions of research findings.

            Did you ever want to know how the brain operates? Consider your memory, something many older people worry about. Why does it seem to be getting worse? Levitin delves into the details of acquiring, storing and retrieving memories, telling about how there are different memory systems distributed across the brain. Did you know you can learn things better after exercising or that a chronic shortage of sleep can undermine acquisition of memories?

            Levitin tells about how many of the body’s systems degrade with age. Muscles become weaker, nerves respond less quickly and the mind is less receptive to new experiences. It sounds all downhill, but Levitin repeatedly emphasises the positives of being older.

As our senses acquire more experience, our minds become better at interpreting fuzzy sensations. The mind becomes more efficient at filling in incomplete perceptions, which means less effort and energy are required. So in some ways, perceptual capacities improve.

Older people, with their life experience in doing different things, have learned which ones give them satisfaction, and spend more time doing them. Older people, Levitin says, are less likely to dwell on negatives, instead focusing on positives. The result is that, according to surveys, people are happiest in the 80s, despite physical frailty and health problems. However, this is an average result: some oldies are unhappy while others flourish. Even so, for anyone younger, this is hope for the future.

Exercise and diet

Levitin emphasises several things that are especially important for ageing well. One of them is physical activity. Through various processes, it improves both physical and mental health. The biggest impacts come from modest amounts of activity when compared to none; successive increments of additional activity are beneficial but with declining marginal utility.

            Older people, at least those with aches and pains or with serious health conditions, may feel like they need to take it easy, but the evidence is that activity is beneficial to all. Levitin, giving special attention to mental functioning, recommends activity that requires mental alertness. He cites trekking on new paths, noting that the process of identifying the best spot to next put your foot stimulates the mind. Other options that do this include orienteering and competitive sports. On the other hand, using an exercise bike has more limited demands on the brain.

Another important contribution to healthy old age is an appropriate diet. Levitin canvasses a range of evidence about various options, for example the Mediterranean diet and the paleo diet. He concludes that the most important thing is to avoid processed foods and deep-fried foods. Aside from this, he says, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much what you eat.

Then there’s the question of how much to eat. Experiments with rats show that reducing the number of calories (or kilojoules) consumed leads to increases in longevity, but the evidence about this for humans is less than solid. Levitin notes that some researchers in this field have adopted occasional interruptions to normal eating patterns, skipping meals or fasting one day per week.

            Levitin is sceptical of the value of vitamin and mineral supplements, saying there is little evidence they significantly improve health. However, he is all in favour of vitamins and minerals ingested via a varied diet. More generally, he is sceptical of alternative medicine. He doesn’t mention that many in the alternative health area recommend fasting as a health practice.

Sleep and work

As a neuroscientist, Levitin gives plenty of attention to sleep because of its importance to functioning of the brain. Sleep enables consolidation of memories. It is also probably helpful in reducing the risk of dementia. Yet many people spend much of their lives in a sleep-deprived state. Levitin explains why. Prior to widespread artificial lighting, most people slept according to the cycle of day and night. Now, with electric lights, natural cycles are interrupted, and light from mobile devices extends the interruption.

            Most people use drugs to maintain alertness while awake — think coffee, tea, soft drinks and energy drinks — and sometimes to fall asleep. Levitin provides information on the down sides of this cycle, recommending a lifestyle that is closer to pre-industrial, for example avoiding blue lights (from screens) in the time before bed. There is also a cultural challenge: getting plenty of sleep is seen as an indulgence inappropriate for those trying to impress their colleagues about their commitment to work.

Re work, Levitin makes a strong recommendation: “Never retire.” He doesn’t mean to keep working at a job you hate. He means keep doing whatever provides challenge and a purpose in life. There’s no particular challenge in watching television or sitting beside the pool sipping a martini.

It is common to distinguish between work and leisure, and to see leisure as better. However, for quality of life, working at things you care about is important. Work provides a mental challenge. Also, interacting with people is good for the brain. Levitin recommends spending time with younger people, children and adults, as a way of maintaining mental openness to experience. Oldies have a harder time learning new things, so the pressure of interacting with youngsters is valuable in preventing getting stuck in mental routines.

Daniel Levitin

            What about doing puzzles such as sudoku and keeping mentally active through electronic brain training exercises? Levitin says these are fine but there’s no evidence that they prevent dementia. Doing sudoku helps you get better at sudoku but doesn’t seem to have any general benefit for mental functioning. That’s true of most activities: they help you do better at specific tasks. So for overall brain health, activities that stimulate the mind in varied and varying ways, including unpredictable ones, are the most beneficial.


Being lonely is bad for you: bad for you both physically and mentally. An important part of ageing well is maintaining social connections. This requires effort. As you get into your 70s and 80s and beyond, many of your long-time friends and contemporary family members are likely to die, so effort is required to build new personal connections, and this sort of effort tends to be greater for older people. For those with children and grandchildren, contact with a younger generation may be readily available, assuming they are nearby. Otherwise, though, it is important to try new activities, ones that are stimulating socially, mentally and physically.

Beyond individualism

Levitin’s advice is based on the latest scientific studies of ageing, nutrition, exercise, sleep and social interaction. His approach is most suited for affluent people. One thing is missing: social change. Levitin describes what you can do as an individual, assuming society is fixed. His recommendations could be turned around to become prescriptions for how society might be organised to support successful ageing.

Sleep, for example, has become more difficult because of the 24-hour economy and the proliferation of digital devices. Those who feel obliged to work the night shift pay a penalty in terms of their sleep and hence their health. Digital addictions, fostered by companies who profit from them, are also hindering sleep.

Similarly, societies organised around the car and labour-saving devices make it more difficult to get adequate exercise, and societies organised around the nuclear family make it more difficult to have everyday interactions with younger people.

It is fascinating to imagine a society organised to maximise brain rejuvenation. It would facilitate working at advanced ages, build physical activity into doing everyday things like shopping and commuting, and foster intergenerational interactions. The title of Levitin’s book, Successful Aging, might become Social Change for Ageing. Don’t expect this to happen quickly, or even in your lifetime. But promoting this sort of social change could provide a purpose in life, a purpose valuable for you and many others.

Brian Martin

Postscript: a few quotes from Old age ain’t no place for sissies

“Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. – Satchel Paige

“Old age is like climbing a mountain. You climb from ledge to ledge. The higher you get, the more tired and breathless you become, but your views become more extensive.” – Ingrid Bergman

“Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.” – Maurice Chevalier

“The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.” – Lucille Ball

“Surely the consolation of old age is finding out how few things are worth worrying over” – Dorothy Dix

How old is old? Kids answer.

“I can’t imagine living past 45 or so. I think I’ll be so bored by then.” – Jenna, age 12

“No one is ever old until they’re dead.” – Leroy, age 11

Using bad’s power for good

Negatives have more emotional impact than positives. I’ve observed this when reading through student comments on my teaching. I don’t give much attention to the many nice comments whereas a few nasty ones stick in my mind.

My colleagues report the same thing. They fixate on a bit of negative feedback even though it’s the exception.

This is an example of the psychological power of negatives or, in other words, the power of bad. It’s a phenomenon that plays a role in many facets of life.

In 2001, a long paper appeared in the Review of General Psychology titled “Bad is stronger than good.” The authors provided lots of experimental evidence that negatives have a greater psychological impact than positives. In the same year, another long paper, by different authors, appeared making the same argument.

Now, for those who don’t care to read scholarly papers in social psychology, there’s an accessible treatment: The Power of Bad, by science writer John Tierney and prominent psychologist Roy Baumeister. They explain this feature of human mental processing and spell out its implications in all sorts of arenas. There is much to learn.


In economics, one manifestation of the power of bad is called loss aversion. Suppose you’ve bought some shares and need to sell them in the next year. If you’re like most people, you’ll be much more eager to sell if the shares have increased in value. But if they’ve declined in value, you may feel like holding on until they go up again. The prospect of losing money has more of a psychological impact than the prospect of gaining an equal amount.

Some of the experimental results are eye-opening. In one study, “The students would blame a ticket broker for selling them worse seats than promised, but they wouldn’t show extra appreciation if the seats were better than promised” (p. 57). The lesson: don’t overpromise.

In US football, teams nearly always kick the ball when in a situation called fourth down. This is a conservative approach: it prevents a bad outcome but sacrifices the possibility of a good one. A coach named Kevin Kelley showed that it was nearly always better not to kick on fourth down. At first his team’s fans were hostile to his innovations, but then his team started winning. However, other coaches weren’t willing to follow his example. The risk of loss of field position due to not kicking outweighed the much greater benefits. Fans are risk averse and hence so are coaches.

Personal relationships

You’re in a long-term relationship and want to maintain it. What should you do? One option is to seek opportunities to create positive feelings: an unexpected gift, a holiday together, a meal at a special restaurant. It seems obvious that this is the way to keep the relationship strong.

Tierney and Baumeister say that’s not correct. Positive experiences are helpful, but far more important is avoiding negatives. Their rule of thumb is that four positives are needed to counteract one negative.

Your partner or friend makes a hostile comment — or at least a comment that you interpret as hostile. You might be tempted to be defensive or to reply with a hostile comment of your own. Bad move! Interactions that escalate in a negative way are hard to overcome. They require lots of positives just to get back to an even keel. The insight from The Power of Bad is that not engaging in negative spirals can do far more to preserve a relationship than a host of compensating positives. If you can learn to hold back whenever you feel like making a nasty comment, you won’t need to compensate with moonlight dinners and exotic holidays.


In the US and elsewhere, there has been a powerful movement to attempt to raise people’s self-esteem, on the assumption that higher self-esteem leads to better performance. Baumeister was a leading figure in challenging this movement, arguing that self-esteem is better understood as a consequence of good performance than as a cause.

            At some schools, everyone gets a prize, no matter how poorly they do. In comparison, Tierney and Baumeister tell about some US schools that harness the power of bad, giving critical feedback on assignments and intervening to improve teaching techniques. These schools, even in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, produce outstanding results. Students and teachers respond to the right sort of criticism far more than to praise.

Some managers attempt to soften their criticisms of employees by providing praise immediately beforehand and afterwards, in a “praise sandwich.” However, the initial praise has little impact because the criticism absorbs so much mental energy that employees don’t recall it. When it comes to giving criticism, Tierney and Baumeister have specific advice. One suggestion is to ask employees whether they want good news or bad news first. Another is to ease into criticism by first asking “How do you think things are going?” and looking for signs that the employee recognises the possibility of improvement. (Some don’t.) Another suggestion: when giving praise, be lavish and creative. Most people don’t find this overblown, even when they’ve been told in advance that it might not be accurate. Flattery works!

Relationships at work

At workplaces, some workers are pleasant while others are abrasive. Co-workers who are encouraging and positive can boost a team’s performance, but those who are unsupportive and negative can cause damage. You might imagine that the different personality types would cancel each other out so that the performance of a team would reflect the average personality score. However, studies show bad is more powerful than good.

“… the strongest predictor of team functioning turned out to be the score of the worst person in the group. One lazy, disagreeable, emotionally unstable person was enough to sabotage the whole team, and it didn’t matter if there was one particularly wonderful member of the group. The star couldn’t compensate for the dud’s damage.” (p. 141)

How to make a good impression

Imagine you’re the manager of a hotel. Your guests go on social media and post ratings and judgements. That’s awkward, because the negative comments from one disgruntled guest can outweigh numerous positive comments from satisfied ones. Another challenge is that rival hotels might try to sabotage your ratings by putting up fake negative comments.

How can you overcome the negative posts? The only reliable way is to overwhelm them with positive ones. But how? One US hotel chain, the Library Hotel Collection, has showed the way. Adele Gutman, the manager of one hotel in the chain, the Casablanca in New York City, pores over negative comments and notes the key points in a guest’s stay that give rise to grievances. She seeks to smother each guest with positives, especially at these key points. For example, each arriving guest is greeted warmly as if they are a visiting dignitary. Every complaint, no matter how ill-informed, is addressed promptly. When guests leave is a special time for positivity, because final impressions, along with first impressions, are crucial. Some guests might find this sort of treatment cloying but most love it. Each hotel in the chain is regularly rated among its city’s best despite the physical facilities not being the most luxurious.

The Pollyanna Principle

Pollyanna was a fictional heroine who, no matter how bad things were, always looked for the good in a situation. After she was paralysed in an accident, she nevertheless gave thanks for the time in her life when she was able to walk. To call someone a Pollyanna is not a compliment. Instead, it suggests they are out of touch with reality.

Tierney and Baumeister turn this everyday attitude on its head. In their view, being a Pollyanna is functional. Because bad is stronger than good, it’s helpful to spend plenty of time counting your blessings. This will make you happier.

A crisis of crises?

The news media thrive on disasters. News reports are filled with stories of doom and gloom: wars, disasters, murders, pandemics and lurking dangers. Editors and journalists who subscribe to the slogan “If it bleeds, it leads” are simply responding to what attracts audiences. The result is that the world seems to be a very dangerous place. People who watch lots of television are more likely to overestimate the level of crime in their neighbourhood.

John Tierney

            Tierney and Baumeister apply their understanding of the power of bad to a range of controversial public issues, including crime, drugs, GMOs and climate change. They argue that these problems have been exaggerated, and that despite the prophets of doom, the world is a far better place today than any time in the past.

Roy Baumeister

            While it’s valuable to take into account the power of bad in examining social issues, this is only one factor. In describing controversies, Tierney and Baumeister present the arguments on only one side — the side they think is correct — and assume that those with contrary views are being driven by the power of bad. This is too simple: there are other important factors. For many of the controversies, they don’t address the role of vested interests. In drug debates, for example, there are powerful interests trying to dampen concern about legal drugs and to raise the alarm about illegal ones. In some controversies, scientists trying to raise concerns are censored, undermined or even dismissed: the power of bad is used to downplay problems.

Tierney and Baumeister seem to assume that all innovation is beneficial. They misrepresent the precautionary principle as meaning “never do anything for the first time.”

Another problem is that in many controversies, each side tries to raise an alarm. In the vaccination debate, proponents highlight the dangers of infectious diseases while critics highlight adverse reactions to vaccination. In the fluoridation debate, proponents highlight the dangers of tooth decay while opponents focus on adverse health effects of fluoride. In these and other controversies, negativity bias does not provide much guidance for judging the rights and wrongs of the competing claims.

No doubt negativity bias is influencing governments’ and people’s responses to the coronavirus. Exactly how I leave to your judgement.


It is extremely valuable to understand negativity bias and take it into account in your daily life, in all sorts of ways. The Power of Bad is an engaging treatment that can alert you to a host of possibilities and help you avoid seeking excess safety. However, it’s also important not to dismiss all warnings.

Brian Martin