Went to a really interesting talk last week between Daniel Levitin and Camilla Cavendish (who wrote the brilliant book “Extra Time”) all about ageing and how to live longer, better.
They called it “80 Is The New 30”. A guide to getting older.
That seems a little extreme to me. How can you compare 80 year olds to 30 year olds? You can’t exactly shave 50 years off someone’s life, however fit they might be….but perhaps we are heading that way.
Once we’ve got over the blip of dying unreasonably early from the Coronavirus. Which is making us all think F*CK It, WHAT’S THE POINT? LET’S JUST ALL GET DRUNK AND TAKE DRUGS EVERYDAY. Especially if we have to self isolate for a couple of weeks….I am filled with questions like, will all the loo roll run out? How will hairdressers survive? Can they still work with masks on? Will the drug dealers still be working? Will I have enough wine?
Anyway, I digress….back to living forever.
Daniel is a Neuroscientist and was discussing his latest book “The Changing Mind? A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Ageing Well.” To be honest he’s obviously ageing pretty well because it was revealed that prior to becoming a Neuroscientist he was a Sound Engineer and Record Producer – so he must be older than he looks.
In 2018 more people in the UK over the age of 75 than under the age of 5 for the first time in history. So the saying “children are our future” is not true anymore…”old people are our future”, lots and lots of old people and the world had better start adapting and creating new and better support networks (unless this virus wipes them all out of course, which would be awful). Multigenerational people working together are more productive because as a team they are good at resolving conflict and predicting the outcomes so keeping older people in the workplace is a good thing. Additionally this type of success generally works in any diversity group.
I’m going to summarise below, because basically now is not the time to be worrying about living forever, now is the time to be stocking up loo roll and I’ll get back to it when we’ve all stopped worrying we’re going to die:-
FIND YOUR PASSION
A key element is to be happy – so you need to find your raison d’être, your reason for being. Engagement with life is crucial. Keep learning. Known as “Ikigai” in Japan.
A key focus is exercise
Activity maintains muscle mass and reduces stress and improves immunity and Daniel says that the best solution for pain is exercise. There is an epidemic in the world for falls – we don’t move about enough, so take more risks and move more.
10K steps a day – sitting down is as dangerous as smoking.
Exercise is crucial, but not in a gym ideally says Levitin – what is far more important for the brain is simple outdoor activities that require people to use their powers of navigation and especially if the path is uneven as you have to work hard to manage your every step, which exercises your hippocampus, the part of the brain that plays a key role in memory formation, particularly spatial memory and navigation. Navigate with your feet and move your body in nature because the body helps shape the mind.
Mindset is important – you can’t control a lot of things, but you can control how you respond to things – resilience, curiosity, concentration can all be built up and Levitin says you can change your mindset and even your personality with Psychotherapy. Meditation, yoga, having an inspirational mentor, or providing that role model, literature, art – all of these can restore the mindset and enhance curiosity in the world and can increase your happiness levels.
Daniel say’s that it’s a myth that memory starts to fail us as we get older and that there is no evidence to substantiate this. He says it’s more in the mind….as in when we start mislaying or losing our phones, we start worrying that we are on a slippery slope to mental decline and dementia – however, when teenagers lose things (WHICH THEY DO ALL THE BLOODY TIME BY THE WAY) they just put it down to being distracted, drunk, stoned, tired, excited, in a rush…..so why should we see things any differently? Older adults spend more time in their heads apparently, which could make us more unaware of the details, whereas teenagers tend to be more hedonistic and in the moment.
Of course strength, muscle mass, speed does indeed diminish over time, but this is compensated for by an increased ability to solve problems, experience empathy and compassion.
What is especially important after 60, in order to keep up to speed is to challenge ourselves – take on something very hard to keep the brain working – crosswords and suduko’s are not enough – apparently this will just make us better at crosswords and suduko’s, it won’t make us quicker or sharper – we have to learn a new language, an instrument or how to fly a plane, or sail a boat – anything that takes you massively out of your comfort zone and it’s especially good if it actually scares you. A certain amount of stress kickstarts your immune system and helps make it function properly.
This provides what is known in the trade as Cognitive Reserve as new connections are made in the brain creating increased neuroplasticity. Crucially, and interestingly, he says that this won’t actually put off Dementia or Alzheimer’s but the people around you won’t notice because you will have lots of reserve!
“Science says push back. Rage against the machine”
Some brain training helps and games don’t hurt – might make your reactions quicker and therefore you can avoid more car crashes – Daniel recommends one though that he has discovered seems to have improved his brain – it’s called Set Game – a matrix of 9 shapes with different colours and you have to pick out the patterns – requires switching sets so improves your speed processing.
TALK TO STRANGERS
So my mother was right all along…all those years of being embarrassed when she struck up a conversation with a stranger…and who knew? It was keeping her mentally agile. Daniel says that meeting people is essential to maintaining your brain’s development. Every conversation with somebody you don’t know is unbelievably challenging. So don’t just converse with people you know, get out and talk to others. Use it or lose it because the unknown is good. Texting and social media will not do. Get out and look up.
Loneliness is an issue, so you need to do something about it – OK to be on your own and busy, but if lonely – get out and talk to strangers! He says whilst intimacy is important, the talking to random strangers in the street is even more important! – connect with people. Turn your area back into a village and start being friendly and kind!
But essentially in Camilla’s book, the key, she says, is relationships, relationships, relationships….
Sleep is very important – Daniel has taken this to the extreme level by locking himself away for two weeks and finding out what his natural rhythm is – so now he sleeps from 9.30pm to 5.30am every day. I’m not sure this would work for most people and he agrees that you have to maintain a balance and enjoy life! But getting 8 hours sleep regularly is crucial for your brain.
A 15 minute siesta has the same effect as an extra 1 hr and 15 mins a night. Anything from 5-60 minutes is good, but no longer than that.
SENSE OF PURPOSE
Keep working – don’t retire, or if you do retire, retire to something else instead – volunteering, tutoring, working in a school or a hospital, a sense of purpose is essential to brain health and also kick starts the immune system by getting up and out.
Doing something for other people has a very profound effect on general wellbeing including chronic health.
Keep learning. Harry Burnstein didn’t write his first novel until he was 97 after the loss of his wife.
When it comes to planning for quality of life in old age, Levitin recommends people ask themselves and their ageing family members three simple questions posed by Joseph F. Coughlin, director of MIT’s Agelab:
Who will change my light bulbs?
Meaning, who can do the chores around the house that become difficult or dangerous as we age? Who can you call for help? If you need to pay someone to do those tasks, how much will that cost, and what services are readily available to you?
What if I want an ice cream cone?
As people’s social circles shrink in old age, Levitin said, it’s a good idea to set up their lives in a way that makes it easy to walk down the street for an ice cream, a coffee, or a trip to the local pub. That’s about leaving room for spontaneity, he said, and guarding against isolation.
Who are you going to have lunch with?
“Are you living in a place, and have you arranged your life in such a way, that you have somebody to have lunch with once or twice a week?” Levitin asked.
Get a balanced diet. Plant based is good. Less meat.
Caloric restriction – fasting or at least eating less in order to reduce calories – it’s good for you and your immune system. Not always substantiated but a general rule of thumb is “don’t eat if you’re not hungry” and eat smaller portions.
12 hour fast can work well – 8pm to 8am
Daniel mentioned Netformer – (diabetes drug for 40 years), new use helps with intermittent fasting – but got to get the right balance. Be mindful that 92% of drugs that work in mice don’t work in humans so take heed. Have to decide how much risk you are prepared to live with.
Alcohol disturbs your sleep cycle, mood and is of course a toxin, so take it easy and have days off. DL doesn’t really drink anymore.
HOW DO YOU PREPARE TO GET OLDER?
(This is of course to be considered after we are over the blip of worrying about hand sanitiser and whether masks work)….
Put good practices into place in advance. Where do you want to be? Diet, exercise, sleep etc. Get in the habit of doing all those things in your 50’s so that then you will be happier in your 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
In the meantime, for the next few months I am going to start smoking again.