Tag Archives: Daniel Levitin

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

Dealing with information overload


How well are you coping with the flood of information produced and distributed these days? A common malady is “information overload”: more information is coming in than you can process properly. For some guidance, read Daniel Levitin’s book The Organized Mind. It’s a big book. More information! But it has many useful perspectives and tips.

Levitin is a neuroscientist. He starts with how the mind makes sense of the world. A key process is making categories. Levitin tells about this through simple examples, such as “vegetable” being a broad category and “potato” being a more specific one. Then there are types of potatoes.

You may already be impatient. What’s the punch line? What’s the key to surviving the information onslaught? So here’s Levitin’s central insight: externalise your mind. Rather than trying to remember everything, you should set up systems to hold information vital to you, in ways you can easily manage. And do it in a way that takes advantage of the way the mind deals with categories — like “vegetable” and “potato.”

A classic example is the to-do list. A daily list of things to do, preferably in priority order, addresses information overload in a simple way. Rather than try to make decisions about every new call, visit, message or thought, you consult your to-do list and concentrate on proceeding through it. Once you set your priorities, the endless succession of messages, including advertisements, communications from family, friends and workmates, and all sorts of electronic enticements, can be subordinated to your own agenda.


Active sorting, namely putting things into piles according to their importance, enables you to focus on what you’re doing:

Active sorting is a powerful way to prevent yourself from being distracted. It creates and fosters great efficiencies, not just practical efficiencies but intellectual ones. After you have prioritized and you start working, knowing that what you are doing is the most important thing for you to be doing at that moment is surprisingly powerful. Other things can wait — this is what you can focus on without worrying that you’re forgetting something. (pp. 34–35)

Levitin has a bigger agenda than simply being efficient at getting things done at work, a topic that has already been capably analysed. Levitin addresses cognitive overload, and how to deal with it, in several key domains: at home, social life, time management, life-and-death decisions, business and teaching children. Information overload is a problem in each of these areas, and so is a related problem: decision overload, namely having to make too many decisions.

Daniel Levitin

Priorities and tasks

A key insight from neuroscience is that “The decision-making network in our brain doesn’t prioritize” (p. 6). What happens with overload is that there are too many decisions to be made, and the brain gets tired in the sense that willpower is depleted. If you haven’t prioritised what’s important, you will be worn down making trivial decisions and won’t be well placed to deal with the important ones. This is why dealing with electronic messages — Facebook, texts, email — can be undermining. You have to decide whether to read a message and then what to do with it: remember it, file it, act on it or, more likely, skip it or delete it. All those little decisions exhaust willpower. This is overload in action.

Levitin notes that people think they are being more efficient when doing more than one thing at a time, but actually, “ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.”

Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. … Just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognitive performance. Glenn Wilson of Gresham College, London, calls it infomania. His research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an e-mail is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. (pp. 96-97)


Life-and-death decisions

Levitin encourages readers to organise the information relevant to their life in a more efficient fashion and to develop skills for making decisions. This is more than just paying attention to what’s important. One of the skills Levitin promotes is using fourfold tables to work out probabilities. Suppose you’ve taken a test for a rare cancer. The test returns a positive result, and naturally you panic. But wait: what’s the chance you actually have cancer? You need to know some figures first. If the cancer occurs in one in a million people, and the test has a 10% chance of a false positive, then most likely you don’t have cancer. Many doctors don’t understand the probabilities and will recommend treatments that are more likely to cause harm than reduce it. Levitin provides examples for working out the figures.

If the chance of being struck by lightning is one in a million, what is the chance of being struck by lightning twice? To calculate the answer, you have to know whether the two events, namely getting struck by lightning, are independent. Often they are not. This basic insight about probabilities applies to many areas. What is the chance of having your house burgled twice? What is the chance of two global financial crises within 20 years?

At home and work

In organising things at home, Levitin offers suggestions on the use of categories, and recommends having a “junk drawer” for the miscellany of things that don’t (yet) warrant a category of their own. In organising your time, he addresses the roles of sleep, noting that most people don’t get enough, which means they haven’t set the right sort of priorities for use of their time. In organising your social life, he points to the cognitive challenges involved in an ordinary conversation, given that both literal and implied meanings are nearly always involved. To maintain relationships, you need to take both into account.


In looking at being organised in the business world, Levitin notes that highly productive executives have an advantage over the rest of us: they have assistants who organise their files, their time and their interactions. They don’t have to worry about whether the activity they are doing right now is the most important: they know their assistants have arranged that it is. This helps explain why they can be so focused in meetings: they are less distracted by worries about other things they need to do.

This is an example of Levitin’s central point. Given that memory is fallible and making sense of a cacophony of information inputs is cognitively draining, the key to being organised is to put parts of your mind outside your body. You may not have personal assistants, but you can use computers, phones, diaries, apps and even one of Levitin’s favourites, 3-by-5-inch index cards.


Managing your time

To give a sense of the wide-ranging nature of The Organized Mind, consider the chapter “Organizing our time.” It starts off noting the importance of the prefrontal cortex in time management, addresses the biological importance of time and the rise of precise time measurement (which is pretty recent in human history), considers the mental challenges of temporal frames and planning in a wide variety of tasks (from watching television to the invasion of Normandy), examines the many roles of sleep, looks at what is called flow (immersive engagement in an activity), and addresses reasons for procrastination. Within the procrastination section, Levitin considers various topics including attention deficit disorder, delayed gratification, and beliefs that facilitate procrastination.

Also important is to disconnect one’s sense of self-worth from the outcome of a task. Self-confidence entails accepting that you might fail early on and that it’s OK, it’s all part of the process. The writer and polymath George Plimpton noted that successful people have paradoxically had many more failures than people whom most of us would consider to be, well, failures. If this sounds like double-talk or mumbo jumbo, the resolution of the paradox is that successful people (or people who eventually become successful) deal with failures and setbacks very differently from everyone else. The unsuccessful person interprets the failure or setback as a career breaker and concludes, “I’m no good at this.” The successful person sees each setback as an opportunity to gain whatever additional knowledge is necessary to accomplish her goals. The internal dialogue of a successful (or eventually successful) person is more along the lines of “I thought I knew everything I needed to know to achieve my goals, but this has taught me that I don’t. Once I learn this, I can get back on track.” The kinds of people who become successful typically know that they can expect a rocky road ahead and it doesn’t dissuade them when those bumps knock them off kilter — it’s all part of the process. As Piers Steel would say, they don’t subscribe to the faulty belief that life should be easy. (p. 200)

If you can organise your time well enough to spend ten minutes per day reading The Organized Mind and implementing some of Levitin’s suggestions, you can become even more efficient, focused and mentally calm, and also assist your children and others in your life to thrive. It’s worth the effort, because all the signs suggest information overload isn’t going away. Instead, it’s likely to become worse.


Brian Martin