Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin Shares His Keys to Aging Well
By Christopher Booker, PBS NewsHour for Next Avenue
(Editor’s Note: This video and transcript were previously published by PBS NewsHour.)
Christopher Booker: Daniel Levitin — a neuroscientist and professor emeritus of psychology at McGill University — has written extensively about the brain. Also a musician, he has written bestselling books examining the effect of music on the brain, as well as about how to think “straight” in an age of information overload. In Levitin’s latest book, Successful Aging, he explores the questions: What happens in the brain as we age and what are the keys to aging well?
When you set out to write this book, you said it was because you had questions of your own. What questions were you looking to answer?
Daniel Levitin: I looked at people like my parents, who are in their 80s and very active and engaged. They tire me out. And people like Jane Goodall or Rodney Crowell, who’s still only in his 60s, but I think doing the best work of his career. Paul Simon, who I think did the best work of his career in the last five years. What are they doing? Where does this come from? I wanted to know. I wanted to get some of that for me.
“One of the things that emerged in my research is that as we age into our seventies and eighties, we’re a lot better at some things than younger people.”
Christopher Booker: How have your views changed about your own aging process?
Daniel Levitin: I’ve come to see aging as not inevitably a period of decline and loss and irrelevance, but a period of potentially renewed engagement, energy and meaningful activities. Getting older myself — I’m sixty-two — I’m spending more time with older people who are just marvelously entertaining, full of life and full of activity.
(In researching the book, Levitin spent time talking about the aging process to everyone from former Secretary of State George Shultz to jazz legend Sonny Rollins, to the Dalai Lama.)
Dalai Lama: I think the main source of my strength, the main stance is that I’m a Buddhist monk. Every day is filled with praying and thinking; my body, speech and mind is dedicated to the well-being of others.
Daniel Levitin: One of the things that emerged in my research is that as we age into our seventies and eighties, we’re a lot better at some things than younger people, and one of them is pattern matching. If you go to see a radiologist, you want a seventy-five-year-old radiologist, not a thirty-five-year-old radiologist, because they’ve seen patterns. They’re much better at detecting cancers.
Christopher Booker: Does the expanded ability to recognize pattern make it harder for people to change their views or to maybe look at something differently?
Daniel Levitin: It can, and you have to fight that. I think we have to avoid complacency as we get older because we do tend to get set in our ways. We tend to want to look at things the same way. We want to go to the same restaurant that we know is going to give us a good meal. We want to hang out with the same friends who we know are not going to make us feel bad about ourselves. But we have to fight that because the influx of new ideas and challenging our conventional modes of thinking is important brain food — not just for our individual health but the health of the larger community.
Christopher Booker: Your Number One recommendation of your top ten things to do was don’t retire.
Daniel Levitin: Jane Goodall said this in our conversation yesterday. You know, she said: Don’t retire. Keep going. But she said, if you retire, make sure you have something equally compelling that will engage you. So, that could philanthropy; it could be education.
“I think we have to avoid complacency as we get older because we do tend to get set in our ways.”
Christopher Booker: Let’s talk about sleep. There’s a lot of misconceptions about sleep as we get older.
Daniel Levitin: The myth is, ‘Oh, old people don’t need as much sleep.’ Total myth. The fact is old people do need eight or nine hours of sleep.
The Dalai Lama attributes a lot of his health to nine hours of sleep every night. But as we get older, a lot of the hormonal and chemical changes in our bodies make our biological clocks harder to keep regular. So, just staying up an hour or two later when you’re older can affect you for weeks, can affect your chrono-biological rhythms. And so, going to bed at the same time every night, waking up at the same time every morning, particularly after the age of seventy-five — very important.
Christopher Booker: Why do some people age better than others?
Daniel Levitin: Some of it is genetic. Some of it’s environmental, if you had stressors, early stressors, as a child, that’s going to play against your fortitude and composition. But the good news is we can overcome that. Genetics is not a prescription. Genetics is just an influence, like your childhood, and you can rebuild yourself.
Christopher Booker: Because that’s one of the other key points — that, essentially, it’s never too late.
Daniel Levitin: You can change yourself at any age. That’s the good news. You can look at your life when you’re seventy-five and say, ‘I’m going to do something different,’ and do it.
If you look across the world, across the sixty countries that have been studied, the peak age of happiness tends to be about eighty-two. People get happier. Now, there’s a neurochemical basis for this; your neurochemistry shifts. But there’s also kind of a psychological and very practical basis. You realize you’ve gotten through all these things that were stressing you out. If you make it to eighty-two, you know you’ve managed. You’re OK!
Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.