Many people define aging negatively, as a long downward slope filled with loss, illness and loneliness. But it doesn't have to be that way. It's up to us to decide how, and how well, we want to age.
Where do we find hope? Where do we look for answers to the question of how to create a life worth living for ourselves? Not at the sensational headlines about new drugs, creams, exercise machines and radical diets that can "keep us young." The implication of such reports is that we have to remain young and "fight" aging — as if we had a choice.
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A more hopeful place to look is to the growing field of neuroscience, the study of the brain and how it functions, whose work is about to be bolstered by a major, federally driven, decade-long project to map the workings of the brain.
My new PBS special, Hopeful Aging, begins with an exploration of the brain's crucial role in our lives as we age. We all know that our brain is responsible for our ability to remember, prioritize, solve problems and generally make sense of the world around us. But how can we help it do all those things? What must we understand about the brain to keep it working as well as it can? What's the key?
For humankind to survive, we have always had to figure things out. Our brains are built to feed our curiosity, our urge to discover, uncover and invent — essentially, to be creative. And if we stay creative, and continually learn, we will be helping our brains give us a life worth living as we age.
I don't just mean solving crossword puzzles or playing computer games. Those activities may stimulate our brains, but they only use what we already have in there. What we need to do is to explore new subjects and discover new skills while continuing to nurture old skills.
Think of people you know who used to draw, take photographs, write poetry or dance. In many cases, they stopped their activity because they felt: "What's the use? I will never be as good at these things as I used to."
Hogwash. As we age, we gain insight, vision and wisdom, all of which will serve our creativity well, if we just work up the courage to jump in and try once again to see the world anew.
One of the worst things about scientists (and I'm a social scientist myself) is that we develop measurement tools that determine not only how to gauge phenomena but also which phenomena to track. We decide what we consider important and relevant. So, for example, we often hear that older people cannot remember things as well as younger people, like random facts, series of numbers and linked word pairs. But is that really what's important as we age? I don't think so.
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Just as crucial is our emotional knowledge of how to care for others, support those in need or find just the right word to express a feeling. Just as important is the knowledge we retain to putt a golf ball or move gracefully with a partner on the dance floor. Just as important is that we never stop being creative or trying to teach others what we know.
Who tests those skills? Who cherishes them? Who makes a priority of identifying our strengths as we age, rather than cataloging our weaknesses and deficits? Not many people. So we need to do it ourselves.
What standards should we set for ourselves to continue to have a life worth living?
Take care of your body and your mind will follow. The more we learn about memory and creativity, the more we discover that basic good health is fundamental to preserving those skills — starting with regular exercise, a healthy diet and deep sleep. That's obvious, perhaps, but these goals are hard for many of us to achieve. They are major lifestyle commitments that most of us don't make — except as briefly kept New Year's resolutions.
Reduce stress through playfulness and meditation. Resting our mind and letting it wander into new and imaginative worlds can reduce stress, limit the effects of chronic inflammation and bolster our immune system. And just think what fun it is to play games with friends and grandchildren.
Embrace creativity regularly. Participation in the arts, especially music and dance, can have a significant effect in warding off dementia. Subscribe to a concert series or get a museum membership. Join a discussion group, take a drawing class at a community center or learn how to tango at a dance school. The possibilities are infinite. All it takes is deciding to do it. (Learn more about my foundation's ARTZ program here.)
Exercise your abilities and learn new skills. True learning — not just the stimulation of tabletop puzzles — is the final key to hopeful aging. This means taking advantage of the "procedural learning" part of the brain, which does not diminish in capacity. Keep practicing the skills you've mastered by repetition throughout your life, like shooting baskets or drawing a picture, not the stuff you learned through "declarative," or rote, memory, like the name of the 12th president. Rote-learned information is what we forget and can't recall, but our procedural skills remain and can be exercised and enhanced every day as we get older.
Procedural learning — the acquisition of abilities, not facts — is a crucial key to lifelong learning. Identify what's meaningful to you then employ hardwired brain skills like curiosity and creativity — abilities you'll never lose, even if you haven't employed them in a while — to enhance your life, help others and participate in your community. It is one of nature's amazing gifts that even if someone has dementia or Alzheimer's, they can still exercise the brain's deeply hardwired ability to have a life worth living.