Greater Good Magazine had a great article about how our brains age, and how to avoid the slow decline of an aging brain based on a fantastic book by Daniel Levitin, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives. 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. 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.
Levitin is a neuroscientist, psychologist, professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal, and faculty fellow at UC Berkeley. His book provides insights into how early childhood experiences, personalities, social relationships, and lifestyles all drive our brain’s development. He also disproves the myth around the inevitability of cognitive decline.
“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.”
Eat a variety of foods and eat more plants. 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.
“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.”
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. 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.