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Successful Aging

A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives.

By Daniel J. Levitin
15-minute read
Audio available
Successful Aging by Daniel J. Levitin

Successful Aging (2020) turns the idea that old age is a time of inevitable decline and discomfort on its head. Daniel J. Levitin gives us insight into the neuroscience of aging and, along the way, a bunch of tips about how we can not only cope with aging, but actually appreciate it as a unique life phase.

  • Anyone who plans on aging
  • Friends, partners, and family of an aging loved one
  • Neuroscience buffs

Daniel J. Levitin is an emeritus professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University. He is the author of four best-selling books, including The Organized Mind. Levitin is also a well known public speaker, and his TED Talk has over 16 million views.

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Successful Aging

A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives.

By Daniel J. Levitin
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Successful Aging by Daniel J. Levitin
Synopsis

Successful Aging (2020) turns the idea that old age is a time of inevitable decline and discomfort on its head. Daniel J. Levitin gives us insight into the neuroscience of aging and, along the way, a bunch of tips about how we can not only cope with aging, but actually appreciate it as a unique life phase.

Key idea 1 of 9

Although we often think of old age as a time of mental decline, it also brings improvements in brain function.

When you hear the words “growing old,” what do you think of? Maybe you picture a nursing home, or endless doctor’s appointments. Most likely, what you are picturing has negative associations. But while there are challenges that accompany aging, there are also a lot of positive aspects to growing older.

There’s no denying that, as we age, aspects of our mental capabilities decline. Due to plaque build up in the brain and the reduction of neurochemicals and dopamine, we experience slowing of cognitive function. That’s why it can take us longer to recall a name, or why we might leave our keys in the refrigerator.

But it turns out that other neurological shifts in the brain open the door for new, positive things as well. For instance, as we age, a chemical change takes place that literally makes it easier for us to accept death. In fact, due to deactivation of our amygdala – an area of the brain responsible for memory, decision-making, and emotional responses – we experience less fear in general, and are more emotionally balanced. Research also shows increased tendencies toward understanding, forgiveness, tolerance, and compassion.

Another strength that comes with aging has to do with two important categories of intelligence: practical intelligence and perceptual completion. Studies show that people over the age of 50 score the highest in both of these categories.

When asked questions like, “Imagine you are stranded on the side of an interstate in a blizzard. What would you do?,” studies show that the older you are, the better you will be at coming up with solutions. This is an example of practical intelligence, and it is informed by a lifetime of experience.

Similarly, perceptual completion is a skill that is critical for survival, and that only strengthens as we age. Because of the way perception works, we often have blind spots that our brain needs to fill in, or “complete.” Imagine that you’re driving into a gated community and you pass a sign. Because of your position and speed, you see lcck the gate. Your brain automatically turns lcck into lock, based on the context. Our brains are constantly making these leaps, and the brains of older people statistically score higher at filling in these details. 

Every stage of life has pros and cons. Aging successfully means accepting the limitations and challenges that come, but also enjoying the positive parts.

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