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Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives


When you think of old age, what do you think? Losing teeth. Inevitable depression. Getting older leads to weakness, frailty and dependency? That older adult should limit activity? Old age means the end of sex? Loss of memory as you age. AHHHHH, that would make anyone scared of aging! or do everything they can to slow the decline. SUCCESSFUL AGING delivers powerful insights to these common myths:

In the book, Levitin debunks the myth that memory always declines with age.

He confirms that “healthspan,” not “life span,”; is what matters. He proves that sixty-plus years is a unique and newly recognized developmental stage.He also recommends that people look forward to aging with joy.

Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives by Daniel J. Levitin. Levitin is a neuroscientist, psychologist, professor at McGill University in Montreal. 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.

Successful aging inspires a powerful new approach to how we think about our final decades, and it will revolutionize the way we plan for old age. Levitin looks at the science behind what we all can learn from those who age joyously and how to adapt our culture to take full advantage of older people’s wisdom and experience. Throughout his exploration of what aging really means, using research from developmental neuroscience and the psychology of individual differences, Levitin reveals resilience strategies and practical, cognitive-enhancing tricks everyone should do as they age. Daniel Levitin discusses what happens in our brains as we age, why we should think about healthspan rather than life span. He draws upon his neuroscience analysis to suggest ways we can make the most of our senior years. He shows that sixty-plus years is a unique developmental stage that, like infancy or adolescence, has its demands and distinct advantages.


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 you lose things as a teen or forget something in your 20’s, enter the wrong street in your 30’s. 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 behaviour, just a different narrative.

One of the critical determinants of a happy, productive life is personality, and that we can change our personality. Statistically speaking, the two most crucial personality correlates that predict successful aging are conscientiousness and openness to experience.

1. 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. All those things correlate with living a healthy and long life.

2. 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 tend to want not to do new things—do the things we’ve always done—and that can cause a more rapid cognitive decline. We have to be aware and fight complacency to do the same thing. It’s essential to surround ourselves with new people—young people—and to try new things. Not dangerous things, but new things.

Many of us know exercise is good for our hearts and brains. But Levitin recommends specific ways to exercise to keep your brain young—like hiking—which require navigation skills. He also suggests the best dietary advice: Eat various foods and eat more plants than you probably are eating.

Robotic exercise is undoubtedly good—Like getting your 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 navigation 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 peril. The hippocampus can atrophy. Being outside is good because anything can happen. You have to stay on your toes to some degree. 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.

Fats are essential for myelinating neurons and for building up amino acids in the brain. So all of them in moderation is a necessary part of a healthy diet. Avoiding animal fats.

A lot of older adults suffer from aches and pains, sometimes chronic. How we suffer from pain is in part determined by what the pain means to us.

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 same pressure in the 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. Any of us can practice some mind-training techniques—whether it’s yoga or meditation or anything that works for you.

He points 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.

The role of gratitude in aging well. 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 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—to get things done and be productive. But you have to reach a happy balance.

Older people have particular cognitive strengths. 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, leading to better decision-making and better problem-solving.

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, 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.


In his book, he uses the acronym COACH:




curiosity, and

healthy lifestyle.

We’ve talked about many of those elements already. These are the essential keys to successful aging.He provides an in-depth look at these keys to successful aging and provides new meaning.

Working on being conscientious, being open to new experiences, keeping your associations with others active, especially young people, being curious, and following healthy practices, including diet, good sleep hygiene, and movement—are all critical.

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.

One of his beautiful main messages and final takeaway is: 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 where older people are valued for their experience and integrated more into daily life. It’s a tremendous untapped resource.

Since our years are divided into what he calls “healthspan” and “disease span,” we should aim to prolong the former. Good genes are necessary but not sufficient; upbringing and environment play an essential role, and both work best if one takes advantage of opportunities.

Unconventional Book Club

Andrea Seydel

Mindmeister MindMeister: Online Mind Mapping and Brainstorming (link)

Live Life Happy Book Club Podcast ‎Live Life Happy- Andrea Seydel on Apple Podcasts (link)

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