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A neuroscientist lays out the keys to aging well

As a neuroscientist, professor emeritus of psychology, musician and best-selling author, Daniel Levitin has extensively studied the brain and its impact on aging. His latest book, "Successful Aging," explores the questions: what happens in the brain as we age and what are the keys to aging well? NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker recently spoke to Levitin to learn more.

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  • Christopher Booker:

    Daniel Levitin — a neuroscientist and professor emeritus of psychology at McGill University– has written extensively about the brain. Also a musician, he has written bestselling books examining the effect of music on the brain, as well as about how to think "straight" in an age of information overload. In Levitin's latest book, "Successful Aging" he explores the questions: what happens in the brain as we age and what are the keys to aging well?

    You set out to write this book, you said it was because you had questions of your own. What questions were you looking to answer?

  • Daniel Levitin:

    I looked at people like my parents who are in their 80s and very active and engaged. They they tire me out. And people like Jane Goodall or Rodney Crowell who's still only in his 60s, but I think doing the best work of his career. Paul Simon, who I think did the best work of his career in the last five years. What are they doing? Where does this come from? I wanted to know. I wanted to get some of that for me.

  • Christopher Booker:

    How have your views changed about your own aging process?

  • Daniel Levitin:

    I've come to see aging as not inevitably a period of decline and loss and irrelevance. But a period of potentially renewed engagement, energy and meaningful activities. Getting older myself, I'm 62. I'm spending more time with older people who are just marvelously entertaining, full of life and full of activity.

    In researching the book, levitin spent time talking about the aging process to everyone from former secretary of state george shultz to jazz legend sonny rollins ("rawl-ins") to the dalai lama.

  • Dalai Lama:

    I think the main source of my strength, the main stance is that I'm a Buddhist monk. Every day is filled with praying and thinking; my body, speech and mind is dedicated to the well-being of others.

  • Daniel Levitin:

    One of the things that emerged in my research is that as we age into our 70s and 80s we're a lot better at some things than younger people and one of them is his pattern matching. If you go to see a radiologist you want a 75 year old radiologist not a 35 year old radiologist because they've seen patterns. They're much better at detecting cancers.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Does the expanded ability to recognize pattern, does it make it harder for people to change their views or to maybe look at something differently?

  • Daniel Levitin:

    It can and you have to fight that. I think we have to avoid complacency as we get older because we do tend to get set in our ways. We tend to want to look at things the same way. We want to go to the same restaurant that we know is going to give us a good meal. We want to hang out with the same friends who we know we're not going to make us feel bad about ourselves but we have to fight that because the influx of new ideas and challenging our conventional modes of thinking is important brain food, not just our individual health but the health of the larger community.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Your number one recommendation of your top 10 things to do. Number one was don't retire.

  • Daniel Levitin:

    Jane Goodall said this in our conversation yesterday. You know, she said don't retire. Keep going. But she said if you retire, make sure you have something equally compelling that will engage you. So that could philanthropy, it could be education.

  • Chris:

    Let's talk about sleep. There's a lot of misconceptions about sleep as we get older.

  • Daniel Levitin:

    The myth is oh, old people don't need as much sleep. Total myth. The fact is old people do need 8 or nine hours of sleep.

    The Dalai Lama attributes a lot of his health to nine hours of sleep every night. But as we get older a lot of the hormonal and chemical changes in our bodies make our biological clocks harder to keep regular. So just staying up an hour or two later when you're older can affect you for weeks, can affect your chrono biological rhythms and so going to bed at the same time every night, waking up at the same time every morning, particularly after the age of 75. Very important.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Why do some people age better than others?

  • Daniel Levitin:

    Some of it is genetic. Some of it's environmental if you had stressors, early stressors as a child that's going to play against your fortitude and composition. But the good news is we can overcome that. Genetics is not a prescription. Genetics is just an influence like your childhood and you can rebuild yourself.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Because that's one of the other key points is that essentially it's never too late.

  • Daniel Levitin:

    You can change yourself at any age. That's the good news. You can look at your life when you're 75 and say I'm going to do something different and do it.

    If you look across the world across the 60 countries that have been studied, the peak age of happiness tends to be about 82. People get happier. Now there's a neurochemical basis for this, your neurochemistry shifts. But there's also kind of a psychological and very practical basis. You realize you've gotten through all these things that were stressing you out. If you make it to 82, you know you've managed you're okay!

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