“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.
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.
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.
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