We tend to associate old age with deterioration, especially of our mental powers & body’s ability to function as effectively, as it does in our youth. However, if latest developments are anything to go by, many people in their 60s & beyond appear statistically to be healthier, more active and fully engaged with life. We all know that prevention is better than cure & that good diet, regular exercise & good night’s sleep are things that work to our advantage, if we stick to it consistently. And now latest scientific developments are giving us a deeper understanding of the processes at work as we grow older, as well as providing specific guidelines that we all can follow to keep the symptoms of age at bay. (Clue: they don’t involve doing Sudoku). I have read Camilla Cavendish recently published book “Extra Time: 10 Lessons for An Ageing World” last year & booked myself a ticket to see Camilla interview neuroscientist Daniel Levitin about his new book, “The Changing Mind: A Neuroscientist’s Guide To Ageing Well” for Intelligence Squared lecture at the end of February.
Neuroscientist & bestselling author Daniel Levitin has been at the forefront of this research. According to him, old age is not simply a period of decay, but a unique developmental stage with its own characteristics, just like infancy or adolescence. And we are never too young or too old to start planning ahead for decades to come. To see Daniel Levity be interviewed by Camilla Cavendish, award-winning journalist and campaigner, who has travelled the world interviewing leading experts for her book Extra Time: 10 Lessons for an Ageing World, was as memorable, as going to your favourite music concert – the impressions continue to linger in my memory weeks after the event took place.
Neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist, whose research focuses on pattern processing in the brain. He is Founding Dean of Arts & Humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI in San Francisco, and Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience at McGill University. He has consulted on audio sound source separation for the U.S. Navy & on audio quality for several rock bands and record labels. He is also the bestselling author of “This Is Your Brain on Music”, “The World in Six Songs”, “The Organised Mind” & “A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics”.
During the conversation Camilla & Daniel addressed the most fascinating questions about ageing. From the most effective ways to keep our brains fit to whether we should or shouldn’t we be learning a new language or using cognitive training apps. Is retirement good for us? Will we soon be able to slow down the ageing process by taking special pills that work at the level of our DNA? (Cavendish is already taking an early version of them, but wouldn’t be drawn on the effect just yet. Daniel is sceptical on their efficacy for now).
Award-winning writer and broadcaster, and Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, where her research focuses on the emergence of the ’super old’. She writes a weekly op-ed column on current affairs for the FT. She has been Head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit under David Cameron, a Non-Executive Director of the Care Quality Commission & a McKinsey consultant. As Baroness Cavendish of Little Venice, she sits in the House of Lords. She is also the author of “Extra Time: Ten Lessons for an Ageing World”.
The talk itself was fascinating – Camilla is serious and measured in her role as interviewer, Daniel surprisingly warm ( I was expecting a very serious & somewhat dry scientist with lots of facts & sterile manner; I certainly didn’t expect someone, who ended up playing a love ballad that he wrote for his wife & engaging with the audience, with the air of a kind tutor who takes a personal interest in each person who stands or sits in front of him).
As I took a fair amount of notes during the conversation, I thought it would be best if I do bullit points below, so you can skim through and take not of those elements that are most relevant or of interest to you.
- The aim should be to live longer & better, not forever, thus improving the quality of our life span.
- The difference in attitude – if a 20yo forgets something, he or she is ‘absent-minded or tired’; if an older person does, it’s ‘oh my god, I am losing my mind and must be developing dementia’.
- With age our strength and bone mass decline, that’s why strength training is so important over the years.
- With age our pure processing speed slows down, but differentiating between patterns or ability to solve problems, as well as empathy & compassion go up.
- The benefits of multi-generational teams should not be underestimated, but rather encouraged in the work place. Diverse team – in abilities, age, race, religion will produce better overall result.
- Younger people are hedonistic & focussed on enjoyment of life, here & now. Older people tend to live more in ‘their head’. We all need to be challenged with hard trivia, focussing on cognitive reserves & engaging with the world with the sense of curiosity, rather than fear or apprehension.
- There is a lot to be said for the benefits of younger & older generations living together. There are more ‘projects’ in Europe where students live in retirement homes, instead of university dorms, free of charge. In exchange, they spend time talking and helping the elders.
- Sadly in the West, unlike in Asia & Africa, experiences of the ‘elders’ aren’t as valued, appreciated or taken on board.
- Scepticism about ‘brain-training’ Apps, as there is currently not enough scientifically-based evidence that they improve your bran’s functionality. Same applies to Sudoku & crossword puzzles. Daniel Levitin recommended the game that he uses regularly, but sadly I didn’t write it down properly – I think it was called “Set Game” – its focus on multiple actions, colours & patterns.
- Importance of mindset. We can’t control the universe, but we can control our reactions to events. Focus should be on curiosity, resilience & continuity – those qualities you can change/improve.
- Psychotherapy, yoga, meditation, mentorship, reading and interest in art are helpful in keeping our minds evolving & learning.
- What do such polar opposites, like His Holiness Dalai Lama & investor Warren Buffett have in common? Both value importance of sleep and being grateful for what you have, no matter how small.
- Sleep deprivation can have detrimental effect on brain function. Find what sleep pattern works best for you – early to rise or early to bed – and stick to it. Daniel Levitin did a two-week experiment a few years ago, during his holiday and now sticks to rising early and going to bed early too on most days.
- More jobs need a ‘free age’ pass. If we value experience of older judges, academics & scientists, why not in other professions?
- Chronological age doesn’t necessarily equate with psychological age, so not making people voluntarily redundant after 55 requires a significant change – in legislation, as well as in the attitude of society. People shouldn’t retire, unless they want or need to – importance of the sense of purpose, habit & being valued should not be underestimated. Those things can also impact overall immunity.
- Habits – like grooming, taking showers, dressing up, meeting people & having conversations, particularly with people we don’t know, are important. Talking to strangers encourages us to exercise tolerance, sensitivity & taking turns. New experiences like that also offer good training for our brain, as is engagement with the world.
- Importance of exercise & movement, particularly walking in nature, getting up & walking around, instead of sitting down all the time. Our bodies help ‘inform’ our brains. Walk barefoot when you can.
- Unfortunately there is an ‘epidemic’ of falls & premature deaths that follow, due to patients being bed-ridden or immobile for increased periods of time. 10% for UK ambulance calls are fall related!
- Neuro implants will become more prominent in the coming decade. Hearing implants already show promise, there are developments in insulin & memory impairment ones, but they might have an ethical issue ‘attached’ to them.
- Calorie restriction has its benefits, particularly as we age and our metabolism slows down. Eat smaller portions. Don’t eat or snack when not hungry. David St. Claire’s book on calorie restriction shows that it works in mice, unfortunately appetite suppressing drugs given to mice don’t work on humans.
- There is no clear ‘superior’ diet. You need to eat a variety of foods. Don’t eat when not hungry!
- Alcohol disrupts sleep as we age, can impair memory & mood, especially when drinking ‘consistently’. But drinking from time to time – red wine, single malt whiskey (which Daniel Levitin personally favours) has its benefits. However, don’t forget that it is a toxin for our body.
- We start ‘ageing’ from the moment of conception.
- Diet, exercise & sleep are very important ‘building’ blocks for our long-term health.
- There is inequality in information & healthcare. Lots of disinformation online from so-called ‘experts’. Obtaining prescriptions and higher doses are easier in the US, than in Europe or the UK.
- When you hit 50s, get into ‘good habits’, so not to have to suddenly be forced to change due to illness.
- Importance of volunteering & reframing one’s sense of identity. Doing something for other people. We have to be our own advocates.
- Talk to strangers in order to feel happier, as interaction is very beneficial to human kind. Texting or e-mailing isn’t the same, as actually talking to someone in person.
- Don’t sacrifice consientiousness for optimism – there are limits. Amphitamines are closely tied up with issues of ethics, plus they are very addictive & can damage the brain.
- 15 minute afternoon nap can equal just over an hour of sleep at night – in case you didn’t get enough sleep at night that is.
- Passion is rewarded when displayed by kids. We should consider engagement with life as rewarding too.
- Don’t pop vitamins without getting your bloods done first, in order to determine, if you are ‘low’ on something. Older people often run low on B12 -and it helps insulate neutrons among other things, so vital for our brain optimal function.
- Microdosing – no evidence of it being harmful when taken in small doses. Check with your doctor! It won’t make you live longer, but it might make you feel better.
I don’t know if Intelligence2 will produce a podcast of this event, but I can highly recommend that you read both of these books – each different from another, yet complementing each other’s content and view points of authors almost perfectly. After all, we can control and be responsible for our lifestyle choices and knowledge that we accumulate and put into practise, as we go through different stages of life.