Successful Aging

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Quite a few of you included nice messages with your donations and I had intended to answer each one. But there are just too many and not enough time. I hope you understand.

Thank you all, you are the best.

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The phrase in that headline always sets my teeth on edge. As popular as it is in newspaper, magazine and online headers, and particularly as a book title (I stopped counting at Amazon when I got to 24), it always makes me wonder this: Successful as opposed to what? Unsuccessful aging? Failed aging?

A percentage of old and retired people live in poverty. Is that failed aging? A lot of old people refuse to acknowledge they are getting old. Does that fall on the success or the failure side of aging? And who sets the criteria?

I'm not even sure it's possible for anyone to fail at aging.

This is not new material to me but it came 'round again when a friend and TGB reader who uses the name doctafil to comment here emailed a link to the Montreal Gazette review of yet another book titled, Successful Aging.

The author, 62-year-old Daniel J. Levitin, a cognitive psychologist, musician and neuroscientist (hence the subtitle, “A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives”) believes current popular writing on old age has not kept up with the science:

“'Part of the societal narrative that I want to push back on,” he told the Gazette, “is that we tend to think of life as comprising these developmental stages — prenatal, infancy, toddlerhood, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and so on, and that after some point — 65, 70, whatever — it’s just decline,' Levitin said. 'And that’s not borne out by the research.

“'(Old age) is a distinct developmental stage,' he continues, 'and as with any other, there are pluses and minuses. So I wanted to write about what science had to say about the course of aging and what happens in the brain, from the womb right up to old age.'”

[STOP RIGHT HERE FOR A MOMENT: I'm not going to tell you what that science is because the review skips that part and I haven't read the book. If that seems unfair to you, I would agree. But the title and review became such a mental “ear worm” (as when you get a tune stuck in your head) that I decided to riff on it and see what happens.]

What the review does give us is a list of the usual suspects about how to grow old such as choose carefully where you live and be sure to get enough sleep:

”Older people tend to get less sleep,” says Levitin, “but they need eight or nine hours just like the rest of us. Many cases of Alzheimer’s are misdiagnosed cases of sleep deprivation.”

I didn't know that about Alzheimer's and sleep. However, a quick trip around the internet tells me that research shows lack of sleep MAY lead to dementia but it is a long way from being proved.

Not surprisingly, Levitin says that too much time online isn't good for a person's well-being and face-to-face conversation is important to help avoid loneliness, a problem for people who are more inclined to introspection and solitude than some others.

“You can’t just will yourself out of that,” Levitin says. “But for many adults, after a certain age neurochemical shifts cause them to be more outgoing.”

That may be true for some but Levitin makes a welcome point that I've not run across much from other writers on successful aging:

“...I would add a distinction that I maybe didn’t make enough of in the book — that loneliness and solitude are not the same. Some people enjoy solitude and don’t feel lonely; other people are lonely in a crowded room.

“Loneliness is the killer, not solitude.”

Ageism in general and in the workplace plays a role in Levitin's idea of successful aging:

“It’s a huge battle,” Levitin concurred. “Even within the neuroscience community it’s not talked about. When you think about all of the different isms or prejudices that face society, whether it’s sexism, racism, prejudice against LGBTQ people...all of these are far from solved, but at least they’re part of the national conversation. They’re on the table. Ageism is not.”

Most of this confirms my personal positions on these issues but it still doesn't explain what “successful aging” is which no one seems to have adequately defined.

Again, I am not critiquing the book – I haven't read it. But you would think I'd have gained a sense of what people who spend a lot of time writing an entire book mean by successful aging. And I don't.

That's what irritates me and undoubtedly caused my mental ear worm. If successful aging is going to be a “thing” for old people, as it has appeared to be for 15 or 20 years, it would be a good idea to know what the failure is that these writers want us to avoid.

Or is it just another way of saying saying, take good care of yourself?

Old folks get plenty of useful information about sleep, nutrition, loneliness, falls prevention, etc. from our physicians, AARP and dozens of other good resources. Until someone tells me how “successful aging“ books are different, I'm done with it (except I'm interested in what new things neuroscience has discovered about old brains).

What do you think?


How about this--Maybe "successful aging' is the completion of Erik Erikson's 8th psychosocial developmental stage, Integrity vs. Despair. Well, completing it with a feeling of accomplishment/satisfaction, feeling we've led a successful life, that it was fine as it was, versus the sad alternative of despair over one's life--full of regrets and would/coulda/shouldas (which would be "unsuccessful aging").

Just a thought.

Much of the discussion we had here about a month ago about this book and the concept of "successful aging" -- whether Levitin's definition or those of others -- is likely to follow the same path as what might be said today. We seem to be walking a labyrinth while meditating on the philosophy of aging rather than learning helpful new information. Levitin is a neuroscientist and yet he seems to offer little or nothing of real value to the conversation, but seems more focused on selling his book. A strong positive correlation between sleep and Alzheimer's? I doubt it very much, but that may just be because I've not seen any solid research which seems to support the validity and reliability of that theory. Most sleep deprivation research with which I'm familiar indicates that it leads to a psychosis which can be reversed when sleep is restored. Sadly, that is not the case with dementia.

Once again I toss out Thornton Wilder's sage words: "My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate."

I always go back to the old saw about aging ... it's better than the alternative. Actually, I experienced ageism when I was in my 50s, in the workplace. Since I've retired , I really don't see it in my world of healthcare, education, volunteering, traveling. (Well, my kids, but that's a whole 'nother thing!) So maybe successful aging comes when you DON'T face ageism.

I ran into a former colleague doing gymnastics at the local gym. He's now 72 or so. He said he's trying to "beat aging." What I assumes he means is not the obvious solution--dying pretty much puts a stop to aging--but that he wants to stay fit and healthy and physically and mentally active as long as possible. I suppose that's what most people mean by "successful aging"--those things, and being, as Nana Royer said, mostly satisfied with our life.

But maintaining all that is a function of so many things: the genes we're born with, the gifts we're given (or not): intellectual, physical, personality, looks. And the times we're born into and live through. And dumb luck. A lot of these things are simply out of our control, although some people have the wherewithal to get them under control (see personality).

Maintaining physical, mental, and emotional health is a challenge all through our lives. We're lucky to be the first people to have to figure it out at this stage of life. But, yeah, calling it something different - some variation of "Be the Best You Can Be in Your Elder Years"? I agree with you, Ronni - I suspect the term "successful aging" is annoying because it's a sloppy bit of writing.

I think successful ageing is acceptance of ageing and then living today, NOW, not in the past and not in the future. Sometimes it is hard, but it is worth the effort. Understanding what is happening body and brain-wise also helps so reading this blog is a large part of the acceptance (thank you Ronni and all commenters).

I have been trying to live as Cathy wrote, enjoying this very moment while I have it, whether there is ice cream on the table or not.

I have always been looking to the future; my entire life was built on what I would be doing in the future. I have stopped that for now. Just this moment, that's all I'm considering. Will that type of living be as successful as my planning the future to the inth degree? We'll see.

I like the bit about enjoying what's on my plate and maybe that is what it is all about, the ability to be in the moment, really and truly despite what age, health, luck, life has sent us. This applies at all stages of life and even more so as we get older because there is simply more stuff coming our way. Yes, going with the ice cream....

You guys are the best,


Well, I think neuroscientists gonna do neuroscience and that means write a book or two. Pretty cynical of me, I know. I appreciate the other comments but ultimately feel that the author is selling FEAR. By labeling something “successful” the implication is that there is also a category of “unsuccessful”. And who wants that? Maybe reading a book will get a few folks to go on a diet or get some exercise and that is to the good credit of the author.

Yes, I finally understand----there is a difference between loneliness and solitude. I value the solitude; loneliness is an ill I do not suffer from. Loneliness can be a killer, no matter what the age. Ageism seems rampant to me only because of the stereotypes we are raised with. Everybody is successful at aging. After all, what choice do we have? B

Being in the moment and finding satisfaction in that. At age 73 now, that's my definition of successful aging.

Actually, my reading of research on sleep quality - and especially sleep apnea - does show a significant relationship between lack of restorative sleep and the development of memory impairment and, for some, Alzheimer's. For example, one study showed that those being successfully treated for sleep apnea developed memory impairment 10 years later than those whose sleep apnea was not treated. Scientists do say there is a need for further study - and there may be an interaction effect in the sense that poor sleep leads to lower oxygen levels in the brain at night (not good for the brain) and less effective "brain clearing" (also not good for the brain). And Alzheimer's contributes to poor sleep patterns. So - it's complicated. But having just been diagnosed with severe sleep apnea - and recently started treatment -I find the research fascinating and personally relevant. I am now sleeping much better and I am sure that will be good for my brain. (I did quite a bit of research online before I felt confident enough to ask my primary care doctor if she thought I might need a sleep study (she did)).

For me, "successful aging" means doing all I can to stay as healthy as possible. And one way I do that is by reading the books that report on the latest research. I happen to enjoy that - so I think that for me is part of healthy aging or successful aging - i.e. challenging my brain with complex information (along with all those things we all know and the books talk about - keeping up with good friendships and making new friends. eating healthy foods and avoiding too much of the unhealthy foods, finding an exercise activity - especially one that gets you outside in sunshine and nature, etc. Also, volunteering is wonderful if one is healthy enough!)

I would love to hear what others do that they feel especially helps them enjoy these older years - that to me is what successful aging means. (I am 75 - with some chronic conditions that slow me down but still I am able to help with my granddaughter - which gives me joy, participate as a volunteer with a local nonprofit (which makes me feel both engaged and valued), and do some consulting ( I live on Social Security and even a little extra income helps - and, again, consulting challenges my brain!))

I think that I will go and finish my ice cream before it all melts into the maple syrup.

I'd like to see a few books published on aging by authors who have lived to
80-plus (or thereabouts) and are content with the most recent decades of their lives. The authors also could include observations of some things they found to be negatives. Others might actually learn useful things. I'm quite tired of younger folks telling me how I should live (or feel) at the ripe old age of 84.

Shoot, all this reading about how we're supposed to be and do, I'm sure a lot of it's well intended, but it's using up our time! All these exercises, skin brushing (?), the right hair style, whew, I'd never catch up! Oh, yes, and never, ever leave the shower just having enjoyed yourself, NO! Turn on the cold water and aim it at your heart! Yep, heard that one too. I'm just getting to the place of being okay with whatever anybody thinks about my aging . Nobody has yet told me to spend some time here and there singing a made up song to my soul, but I like doing that, certainly more than turning the cold water on my chest. I like shedding tears of joy or gratitude, is there a book on that? I guess they like meditating now, so I'm okay there, except I'm sure they have some slant on it they want me to know. I think if we just listen to ourselves with love and compassion, we're all gonna be just fine.

As long as you're above ground and breathing, you're aging successfully. IMHO.

That word "success" is overused and ill-defined. I think this competitively oriented culture has oozed into everything. In most instances anyone not in their 60's yet banging on about how to age is a snooze to me and sometime irritant. Mostly what I've learned about aging is to meet changes with new ways of doing things and to welcome the freedom from many things that I thought I "had" to do. My right hand is arthritic; I can type but don't dare carry a hot pan with it. I've found my left hand is much more talented than I realized. COPD has forced me to go slow after a lifetime of going full-out. While I don't like having that I am finding I enjoy viewing life around me as I'm now not rushing by it. So far I'm still alive and on my feet. Success!

Totally agree that the concept of successful ageing is bizarre. But I don't think he's suggesting that sleep deprivation causes dementia, rather than some people who are diagnosed with dementia are actually deprived of sleep.

If you trace all the twists and turns of life. aren't a lot of them due to plain old luck?

I thought being young was the hard part of life. Luckily, aging has been easier.

Even as a very old lady my aging problems are manageable. I feel pretty lucky.

I think everyone has to have their own definition of successful aging. I went to school all of my life and I worked until 3 months ago. I was very reluctant to retire ay 75, but now I realized I was never one to say "I can't wait to retire." I find now since I started blogging I do not miss work.

I like the extra time to review old books and read new ones, even on-line. I use my education to tutor my grandchildren. I still have a feeling of purpose in this life even though it's been transformed. Just because I have physical restrictions that are different the challenges are the same as always: meet new people, do good and rewarding work, help when and where I can, share a laugh, learn new things.

Susan R. basically said what my first thoughts were, that successful aging is staying alive! The quality of that life is a whole different topic with some expected features likely common to all of us — having food, clothing and shelter. Other items become a matter of personal preferences.

I do take your point about wanting to know what constitutes unsuccessful aging. Is it not having food, clothing, shelter which probably brings us close to death ultimately? Are the homeless unsuccessfully aging? Some say they choose to stay homeless, refusing offered housing. They come in all ages.

What are the criteria for being successful at all those younger ages?

The people who comment on this blog are amazing. The conversation thread is intelligent and a pleasure to read. This is truly an incredible community.

Right from the get go we are exhorted by this culture to be successful. In youth that means good grades in school and a degree upon leaving; in young adulthood it means a good job, a good income, a good family, and savings to finance a good retirement. And upon retirement what’s left? Good aging? Good death? My middle-aged son is suffering from depression and anxiety from not being on track with all those markers of success and I am trying to coach him into looking at “success” as not all it’s cracked up to be. Count the blessings, endure the bad stuff, be grateful for sunsets and the coming of yet another springtime.

Any day I wake up this side of the grass, I consider successful aging. That, and not wanting to open a vein out of sheer boredom.

I have always said that success is simply measured. Success in our early years often meant things like having a bigger boat, lots of money in the bank, the biggest car, the most attractive spouse! Imagine those of us in our 70s saying those things are just as important now when success is measured as they were then.

I learned long, long ago there is always someone with a bigger boat, more money, and they were thought to be more successful. It's never been true.

Measuring success is as simple now as it was then. Think of a football field as the width and breadth of your life's work. Now think of the goal post at the end of the field.

No one can achieve reaching that goal without a set of enabling objectives and tasks. Life's problems are, "How can I 'successfully achieve' them? How do I measure whether I really have?"

Success is simple. Once you begin accomplishing those tasks, as few as they maybe - you are a measured success!

Set your goal(s). Now decide how you are going to do to get there (enabling objectives and tasks). Start achieving! You'll soon be a success - and find out you always have been a successful person! (You'll soon realize success itself is in your mind. No one can say you are or are not. Think about achieving and do it.)

It's simple . . .

Hi Ronni and friends - speaking of sleep - some time ago I saw a YouTube doctor promoting magnesium. I bought some. I used to consider myself lucky if I got 6 hours of good sleep - now I often get 10 hours - its great!

I think I am successfully old because I see it as a time to see and understand how so many pieces of life's puzzles fall into place. An older Scottish woman told me this when I was in my fifties and asked her what old age was like. "the pieces of the puzzles fall into place - you come to understand" she said. How right she was. ie:- I can now see why my parents married - could not possibly have done that when I was 50. I am about to be 86 and I must say I LOVE it - except when I have a COPD exacerbation. Almost a year since the last one. I walk at least 2 miles a day - front the front door to the den window. My apple watch tells me so!

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