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Neuroscience tips about gratitude, aging, pain and the brain: An interview with Dr. Daniel Levitin

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About 13 years ago, I watched my very vital moth­er die a slow death from Lewy-Body demen­tia. For me, it was a wake­up call. If there were any­thing I could do to stay healthy myself—to avoid the slow decline of an aging brain—I want­ed to do it. But what real­ly helps us stay sharp longer? And how can we sep­a­rate fad ideas from sol­id, evi­dence-based advice around aging?

Enter Daniel Levitin’s new book, Suc­cess­ful Aging: A Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Explores the Pow­er and Poten­tial of Our Lives.

Lev­itin is a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, psy­chol­o­gist, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty in Mon­tre­al, and fac­ul­ty fel­low at UC Berke­ley. His high­ly researched book pro­vides fas­ci­nat­ing insights into how our ear­ly child­hood expe­ri­ences, per­son­al­i­ties, social rela­tion­ships, and lifestyles all dri­ve our brain’s devel­op­ment, dis­pelling stub­born myths around the inevitabil­i­ty of cog­ni­tive decline. Argu­ing against ageism and high­light­ing the unique gifts of old­er peo­ple, Lev­itin shows us what we can all do to become sharp­er, hap­pi­er, and wis­er as we age.

I spoke with Lev­itin recent­ly about his book and what we can learn from it. Here is an edit­ed ver­sion of our con­ver­sa­tion.

Jill Sut­tie: What neu­ro­science find­ing about aging and the brain most sur­prised you?

Daniel Lev­itin: Well, there are so many! But one is the myth of fail­ing mem­o­ry. Although some peo­ple do have fail­ing mem­o­ry, it’s not inevitable—everybody doesn’t expe­ri­ence mem­o­ry decay.

Some­times the dif­fer­ence is in the sto­ries we tell our­selves. When I taught at Berke­ley and McGill, I had 19 year olds who were los­ing cell phones all the time or los­ing their glass­es or show­ing up at the wrong class­room or for­get­ting what day the exam was. When you’re 70, you might miss appoint­ments, too, or find your­self in the kitchen and not know why you’re there or for­get names or lose your cell phone. But, while the 20 year old says, “Gee, I’ve got to get more than five hours of sleep,” or “I have a lot on my plate,” at 70 you think you must have Alzheimer’s. It’s the same behav­ior, just a dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive.

JS: You write in your book that one of the key deter­mi­nants of a hap­py, pro­duc­tive life is per­son­al­i­ty, and that we can actu­al­ly change our per­son­al­i­ty. How do we do that?

DL: Sta­tis­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, the two most impor­tant per­son­al­i­ty cor­re­lates that pre­dict suc­cess­ful aging are con­sci­en­tious­ness and open­ness to expe­ri­ence. Con­sci­en­tious­ness is a clus­ter of traits that has to do with depend­abil­i­ty, reli­a­bil­i­ty, doing what you’ll say you’ll do, being proac­tive. A con­sci­en­tious per­son calls the doc­tor when they’re sick and, when the doc­tor pre­scribes med­ica­tion, actu­al­ly takes it. We might take these things for grant­ed, you and me; but a lot of peo­ple don’t do those things. A con­sci­en­tious per­son tends not to live beyond their means, and they put aside a lit­tle mon­ey for a rainy day or for retire­ment. All those things cor­re­late with liv­ing a healthy and long life.

Open­ness is being will­ing to try new things and being open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. That’s increas­ing­ly impor­tant as we age, because we have a ten­den­cy to want to not do new things—to just do the things we’ve always done—and that can cause a more rapid cog­ni­tive decline. We just have to be aware and fight the com­pla­cen­cy to do the same thing. It’s impor­tant to sur­round our­selves with new people—young people—and to try new things. Not dan­ger­ous things, but new things.

In terms of con­sci­en­tious­ness, some­times a life event will push you to it—like being giv­en a dia­betes diag­no­sis, where you actu­al­ly have to change your lifestyle or die. And, as you know at the Greater Good Sci­ence Cen­ter, ther­a­py works. Not all ther­a­pists work well with every patient; but we now know from a hun­dred years of psy­chother­a­py you can change your per­son­al­i­ty at any age. That’s what psy­chother­a­py is.

JS: Many of us know exer­cise is good for our hearts and brains. But you rec­om­mend spe­cif­ic ways to exer­cise to keep your brain young—like hiking—which require nav­i­ga­tion skills. Why?

DL: Robot­ic exer­cise is cer­tain­ly good—I have an ellip­ti­cal train­er and I use it. I like get­ting my heart rate up and oxy­genat­ing the blood. And that’s good for the brain. But most­ly that’s about heart health.

If you’re talk­ing about brain health, the hippocampus—the brain struc­ture that medi­ates memory—evolved for geon­av­i­ga­tion, to help us remem­ber where we are going, so that we can move toward food and mates and away from dan­ger. If we don’t keep that part exer­cised, we do so at our own per­il. The hip­pocam­pus can atro­phy.

Being out­side is good, because any­thing can hap­pen. You have to stay on your toes to some degree. Near us, there’s Tilden Park, and most of the trails up there are not paved. So, you’re encoun­ter­ing twigs and roots and rocks and crea­tures; you’ve got low limbs that you have to duck under. All that kind of stuff is essen­tial to keep­ing a brain young.

If you can’t walk—if you’re in a wheel­chair, for example—even nav­i­gat­ing under your own loco­mo­tion is very help­ful, if you can do it. And there’s some evi­dence now that vir­tu­al real­i­ty envi­ron­ments exer­cise the brain to some degree, as well.

JS: What about dietary advice? Do any sup­ple­ments or par­tic­u­lar diets help us age well?

DL: Hav­ing now spent a lot of time look­ing into all the peer-reviewed papers on diet and talk­ing to peo­ple who are deep in the nutri­tion and eat­ing field, I can say that there is no mag­ic diet. And it kind of makes sense that there isn’t, because there are hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent diets, and if one of them was clear­ly supe­ri­or to the oth­ers, we’d know about it by now.

The best advice around diet comes from Michael Pol­lan of UC Berke­ley: Eat a vari­ety of foods and eat more plants than you prob­a­bly are eat­ing. It would be fol­ly to say that you should nev­er have ice cream, or that you should elim­i­nate carbs or ani­mal fats. Fats are essen­tial for myeli­nat­ing neu­rons and for build­ing up amino acids in the brain. So all of them in mod­er­a­tion are an impor­tant part of a healthy diet.

JS: A lot of old­er adults suf­fer from aches and pains, some­times chron­ic. In your book, you write that how we suf­fer from pain is in part deter­mined by what the pain means to us. Can you explain why that’s rel­e­vant to deal­ing with pain as we age?

DL: It has to do with the neu­ro­science of pain. If you’ve got a rock in your shoe, that can be very unpleas­ant, right? But, if you’re on a mas­sage table and some­body applies the exact same pres­sure in the exact same spot, you wouldn’t find it unpleas­ant. Again, it comes around to the sto­ries we tell our­selves about our pain.

Chron­ic pain that doesn’t seem to have a rea­son and that you can’t seem to do any­thing about is debil­i­tat­ing. But [Bud­dhist] monks and oth­ers prac­ticed in med­i­ta­tion have been able to over­come even that. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt any­more; but you can get to the point where it doesn’t aggra­vate you. In fact, a study recent­ly showed that monks who’d med­i­tat­ed more than 20,000 hours could pre­pare them­selves for impend­ing pain and not be dis­tressed by it. Any of us can prac­tice some mind-train­ing techniques—whether it’s yoga or med­i­ta­tion or any­thing that works for you.

Now, there’s cer­tain­ly some pain that isn’t amenable to that, and there are a lot of peo­ple in chron­ic pain, and it can be ter­ri­ble. The fact is that med­i­cine is very bad at treat­ing chron­ic pain. That’s an impor­tant fron­tier that we need to address. As I point out in the book, the vast major­i­ty of the fund­ing for med­ical research goes into keep­ing peo­ple alive longer, not keep­ing peo­ple health­i­er or hap­pi­er longer. And that’s a prob­lem.

JS: What about the role of grat­i­tude in aging well?

DL: Grat­i­tude is prob­a­bly the most under-used emo­tion and the most mis­un­der­stood. It works at any age. The key to hap­pi­ness accord­ing to many—including the Nobel prize win­ner Herb Simon and War­ren Buf­fet, the Ora­cle of Omaha—is to be hap­py with what you have. Simon called it “sat­is­fic­ing.” You don’t have to have the best of every­thing. You just have to have enough.

If you can be grate­ful for what you have, not fix­at­ed on what you don’t have, you’re a hap­py per­son. If you’re con­stant­ly look­ing at what you don’t have, you’re not. Now there’s a cer­tain amount of striv­ing that’s important—in order to get things done and to be pro­duc­tive. But you have to reach a hap­py bal­ance.

JS: You argue in the book that old­er peo­ple have par­tic­u­lar cog­ni­tive strengths. Can you talk about those? 

DL: In gen­er­al, old­er peo­ple have acquired more infor­ma­tion and expe­ri­enced more just because they’ve lived longer. That leads to an increased abil­i­ty to extract patterns—to see sim­i­lar­i­ties in cir­cum­stances and situations—which can lead to bet­ter deci­sion-mak­ing and bet­ter prob­lem-solv­ing.

I always say that if you’ve got to go to a radiologist—because you found a growth or something—you want a 70-year-old radi­ol­o­gist read­ing the x‑ray, not a 30 year old. You want some­body who’s had lots of expe­ri­ence and a lot of feed­back on his or her read­ings being accu­rate.

Also, though there’s no offi­cial def­i­n­i­tion of wis­dom, I and many peo­ple in the field believe that wis­dom is the abil­i­ty to use pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ences and pat­tern match­ing to pre­dict new out­comes, or to defuse sit­u­a­tions and use good judg­ment. Again, this relies on expe­ri­ence.

JS: In your book, you use the acronym COACH: con­sci­en­tious­ness, open­ness, affil­i­a­tions, curios­i­ty, and healthy lifestyle. We’ve talked about many of those ele­ments already. Would you say that these are the essen­tial keys to suc­cess­ful aging?

DL: Well, if you haven’t read the book, that sounds a lit­tle superficial—like the advice you’ve been giv­en all along. If you have read the book, I think it takes on new depth and mean­ing. But, yeah, work­ing on being con­sci­en­tious, being open to new expe­ri­ences, keep­ing your asso­ci­a­tions with oth­ers active, espe­cial­ly young peo­ple, being curi­ous, and fol­low­ing healthy practices—which include diet, good sleep hygiene, and movement—are all impor­tant.

It’s also good to remem­ber that peo­ple tend to get hap­pi­er after age 50. In over 60 coun­tries, hap­pi­ness peaks for peo­ple when they’re in their 80s. We tend to think, Oh God, when I’m 80, I’m going to be mis­er­able, and we all know some 80 year olds who are mis­er­able. But the data and sta­tis­tics show that’s not the norm. Peo­ple actu­al­ly are hap­pi­er as they age, in gen­er­al.

The big­ger pic­ture is that, as a soci­ety, we need to change the con­ver­sa­tion about aging and stop mar­gin­al­iz­ing old­er adults. We need to cre­ate a soci­ety in which old­er peo­ple are val­ued for their expe­ri­ence and inte­grat­ed more into dai­ly life. It’s a great untapped resource.

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s  book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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