aging neuroscience memory

Neuroscience Reframes Aging

By Kevin Meyer Updated on March 11th, 2021

aging neuroscience memory

Exactly a year ago my wife and I were in Hawaii and I was trading emails back and forth with a few colleagues speculating on the impact of the virus on our businesses, conferences, and lives.  We returned to California the day before the state locked down.  Now, a year later, my wife has been vaccinated for a couple months, I have my vaccine appointment next week, and we had dinner – inside (at widely-spaced tables) – at our favorite seafood restaurant last night.

During the past year we’ve all made adjustments and reframed major parts of our lives.  Our passion for international travel was satisfied by a few long road trips through the southwest United States, where we realized that there was amazing beauty in places we had previously just flown over.  We cooked more at home, leading to discoveries of unknown talents – and also lack thereof.  Working out changed from the 5am group crossfit to taking up and becoming rather proficient at the crazy addicting game of pickleball – which we now play with a growing group of over 20 for two or three hours every afternoon.  Tennis now seems painfully slow, lumbering, and boring in comparison.

We’ve all changed how we work, but I also took a hard look at my work hours and now find I’m crazy focused and productive if I work from when I wake up at 4:30 or 5am, to about 9:30am – six or even seven days a week.  The rest of the day is for other projects, or playing if I feel caught up.  In addition to a lot more reading, I’ve been doing quite a bit of reflecting on what’s important to me – and what should change as I approach my seventh decade (!).  That was part of the process behind modifying my work hours.

I recently finished one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, Daniel Levitin’s Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives.  As with his previous bestselling books on psychology and the scientific method, this one is filled with science and statistics, but presented in a very readable and actionable format.  Daniel Pink says it “Debunks the idea that aging inevitably brings infirmity and unhappiness and instead offers a trove of practical, evidence-based guidance for living longer and better.

I especially like how the author takes the time to refute ideas and claims from pop “science,” misinterpretation, and even conspiracy theories.  If you’ve read his other book, A Field Guide to Lies, you’ll recognize the joy he takes in doing this.

The Evolving Brain

The first part of the book is dedicated to diving deep into the function of the brain and how it develops from birth through old age.  As one important point, Levitin considers aging as just another developmental stage, not as decline.  That’s because he also takes the time to refute some common misconceptions about what happens as we age, such as assumed memory loss.  As he puts it, the idea that we lose memory is really just due to how we think of the occasional loss for words, names, or events.  If we’re young we chalk it up to a few too many beers the night before or a lack of sleep.  When we’re older we immediately jump to the conclusion it’s age or dementia.  In reality it’s the same with the exception that processing time does take longer – 1/25th of a second per year – as we age.

Some aspects of memory actually improve as we age, even past 70, such as the ability to make decisions based on pattern recognition.  As Levitin mentions in one of his interviews, if he was going to have an x-ray analyzed, he’d look for the oldest radiologist he could find.  We see a version of this when we think of older people as more wise, and now there are scientific studies that prove it.

Obviously this is in aggregate, and individuals vary due to genetics, environment, disease, and… upbringing.  You see, there are direct scientifically-provable correlations between how you are raised as a toddler and how your brain will perform in old age.  One example he gives is with cuddling and being physically nurtured at a very young age leads to changes in the glucocorticoid receptors in the hippocampus, which affects stress response and the immune system into old age.  This particular example has been shown to be consistent across many mammals.

Levitin cites studies that show that the single most important determinant of lifetime happiness, especially in later years, is personality.  Personality results from environment and situations, but also neurochemistry.   Specifically, the two critical personality traits are conscientiousness, such as taking care of yourself by going to the doctor, and being open to new ideas and experiences.  CQ, or curiosity quotient, can thought of as a better predictor of life success than IQ and even EQ – depending on how you define success.  The good news is that studies have shown that Sigmund Freud and William James are wrong, and personality can be changed even late in life.

Choices Have Consequences

The second part of the book looks at how we live our lives affects the brain and thereby how we age.  Specifically, he talks about diet (and fad diets), sleep, and exercise.

Diet is fairly simple – eat in moderation, stay hydrated (thirst detectors lose effectiveness as we age), and eat your vegetables.  Fatty fish and B12 promote neural health, fat helps nerves.  With the exception of certain caloric restriction diets such as intermittent fasting, most popular diet plans are not backed up by rigorous studies.

Sleep is also important – though sometimes difficult to achieve.  99% of people need at least seven hours of sleep.  Sleep deprivation correlates to hypertension, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, anxiety, and stress.  With our society often focused on productivity, turning sleep into a negative, Levitin suggests reframing sleep as an important restorative process.

Exercise has some interesting angles aside from the expected effect of keeping muscles tones and joints limber.  Letivin recommends hiking on trails outside, instead of sidewalks or especially being inside.  The unfamiliar, unexpected, random terrain of trails causes your brain and body to work together to ensure balance and pace, and there are many other stimuli to the senses outdoors – birds chirping, the sight of clouds and waves, the smells of flowers blooming.  All of this activates the hippocampus to stimulate the immune system, and the reinforced neuro pathways improve creative cognitive ability.  This has been proven via several studies cited by the author.  Some doctors are even formally prescribing wandering through fields and birdwatching as hobbies.

The Glory Years

In the final part of the book Levitin takes a look at, and often debunks, the strategies many are using to improve the aging process.  He examines the human life span and several species that would be nearly immortal if not for predators.  He describes the statistical flaws in detail of the popular “blue zones” – locations in Costa Rica, Italy, Greece, Japan, and even California where people have abnormally long lifespans.  At the same time he is optimistic about the potential of telomere (the end segments of chromosomes) lengthening, where once again the there is a correlation between personality, stress, and telomere length – and telomere length is correlated to lifespan.

Another popular cognitive enhancing tool that he debunks is those popular “brain games,” such as puzzle apps and so forth.  He describes a meta analysis of 132 papers cited by the brain-training companies and he describes it as “reading like an indictment from a federal prosecutor.”

He also takes aim at the overuse of stimulants like Adderal, Ritaline, and Nicotine, but is impressed with the data on memory enhancement medications like Rivastigmine and Memantine, especially when used together.

Levitin believes psychedelic drugs, in particular psilocybin (magic mushrooms), have a lot of potential when used as part of a microdosing (5-10% of a regular dose) regimen.  There are multiple reputable scientific studies showing enhancement of creativity, reduction of anxiety and depression, and release of fear – while having no addictive or other long term effects.  Several clinical studies are underway at top tier research hospitals such as Johns Hopkins. Perhaps the ancient peoples of the world, many of which also celebrated the low dose use of such substances, were on to something.

He ends the book by putting it all together: be more conscientious about taking care of yourself and others, create nurturing parental attachment with the young, exercise in varied, natural environments, and create opportunities for in-person social interaction.  Be curious, always exploring and learning.

  1. Imen

    July 3, 2021 - 6:01 am

    I need to improve my concentration

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