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Being old does not have to suck.

How to Age Well.

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Do you want to have a long and healthy life?  If you are not close to retirement age right now then you may be wondering how you will ever be able to afford to retire.

You may be thinking about how you can continue to work in a fulfilling job well into your 70s as you won’t be in a financial position to retire before then.   On the other hand, why retire at all when it’s a great way of being active into old age?

Whether you are planning for ‘traditional’ retirement.  Or worried about how you will maintain the mental and physical fitness needed to continue working and changing career late in life if necessary.   You will need to think about how you can age well.

I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to age well.  Does being old have to suck? There are several reasons for my curiosity.  Firstly, I am 47 years old.   Assuming that all goes well, I will live to around 90.

So, I am roughly halfway through my time on earth, which makes this a good time to reflect on what went well for the first half and what I could do better for the second.   But without a doubt, the biggest influence on my interest in ageing has been the death of my mother 2 years ago.

The time from her dementia diagnosis through long slow decline to eventual death was 16 long and painful years.   The first few were agonising for both of us as she struggled to keep hold of her disappearing mind.   When she could no longer recognise me or remember my name, her only surviving child to reach a phase of what I called “ignorant bliss”, I found it all a little easier to cope with.

Bearing my own pain of slowly losing my wonderful mother who had single-handedly raised me after the sudden death of my father when I was young was a much easier pain to bear than not being able to take away her pain.

Yes, it was hard that she no longer knew me.  We could no longer have a conversation, but she was in a happier place for a while.   The final years of her being permanently bed-ridden wearing a nappy and being spoon-fed are still too horrible to write about in any detail.

Is mental decline an inevitable part of getting older?   Or are the ways that we view older people nothing more than stories we tell ourselves?

Professor Levitin, a neuroscientist and psychologist at UC Berkeley has written an excellent book on the subject called The Changing Mind: A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Ageing Well.

While researching his book, Prof Levitin interviewed many high-profile people who are ageing well including former US Secretary of State George Shultz and the Dalai Lama.    His research highlights some myths about old people that should encourage us all to view ageing differently.

Old people are miserable

On average, across 60 different countries surveyed, the peak age of happiness is 82.   While there are exceptions and we all know extremely grumpy old people, Prof Levitin explains the underlying developmental changes in brain chemistry that cause happiness in older age.  Leonard Cohen struggled with depression for decades before it magically lifted in his 70s for no reasons that he could fathom.

Old people don’t need much sleep

It’s a myth that old people don’t sleep as much as when they were younger.  We need 8 or 9 hours of sleep even at 90.    The Dalai Lama credits his good health to a solid 9 hours of sleep each night.

Older people have more pain

Chronic pain peaks in our 50s and 60s and then declines again in our 70s and 80s.  Prof Levitin explains the reasons for the older age pain reduction is not well understood.  It could be because older people don’t complain as much or could be due to degeneration in neural pain communication in the nervous system.

Memory loss is not inevitable

Dr Sonia Lupien, founder and director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at The Royal, one of Canada’s foremost mental health care and research hospitals has studied the way that stress impairs our memory.

Most memory experiments compare college students against older adults who need to navigate an unfamiliar university setting to get to the test location.  Dr Lupien designed a fairer experiment by making the test early in the morning when most older people are at their best.  She invited participants to the tour the lab beforehand so that they wouldn’t get lost on the day and she employed a 72-year-old research assistant to greet them for the test.

With this level playing field, Lupien found that older adults performed equally as well in the memory tests as college students.  Her conclusion was that past experiments had inadvertently been testing for high cortisol, not memory loss.

Prof Levitin points out that the 20-year olds he teaches make memory errors all the time.   They turn up to the wrong class or forget the answer to a question in the 3 seconds after they put their hand up.   They will blame it on having too much to drink the night before or not getting enough sleep.  When these lapses in memory happen, young people would never think that they have Alzheimer’s, whereas a 70-year-old would.

The stress and anxiety of trying to remember something can cause memory lapse.

So while there are some myths dispelled, nevertheless there are some inevitable physical changes that come with ageing such as a decline in the 5 senses and muscle loss.   What can we do to mitigate and perhaps slow down the decline?  How can we stay fit and happy at any age?

Curiosity

Take joy in the small things in life.  Ask questions, be interested in people and the world around you.

Openness

Stay open to new experiences and new people as a way to keep your mind young and build new neural circuits into old age.

Associations

Meet with a broad range of people from a wide range of ages as often as you can.  Maintain and grow your social circle because isolation is one of the leading causes of death in older people.   Stretching your mind by interacting with new people is the best thing you can do to maintain your brain health.

Conscientiousness

This is the single most important factor that determines health span and happiness.    Conscientious people do what they say they are going to do.

A conscientious person will be more likely to seek help for a health condition, be more likely to stick to diet and exercise and more likely to be depended on by other people so have a wide social group.

Healthy Practices

Movement is important for a healthy older life, more so than working out in a gym.   While walking on a treadmill is good for cardiovascular health, going outdoors to run or walk engages the brain because you have to pay more attention to each foot strike.

Ensure you go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning after having 8 hours sleep.

Conclusion

I feel encouraged and uplifted after reading Prof Levitin’s extensive research on how to age well.    I reflect on my mother’s life and all the challenges that she had that that might have contributed to her decline.   She was relatively isolated in later life.  She wasn’t able to walk as much as she had done in her younger years due to osteoarthritis.   Her world simply shrunk and so did she.

I am now more hopeful that ageing doesn’t have to come with inevitable mental and physical decline.   I feel blessed that I am a naturally conscientious person who will continue to follow the best ageing advice that science can give.

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