A happy senior moment: Daniel Levitin’s new book looks at how well the brain ages

Daniel J. Levitin's new book is called Successful Aging.

Daniel Levitin can remember the very first record he ever bought. That might not seem to be much of anything but really it is an example the brain’s ability to recall even the most mundane things.

Pretty unremarkable really but for some reason there has been a sense that the older brain functions less well that a younger one.

Levitin isn’t ancient. He’s 62. The cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, writer, musician and record producer is also pretty darn smart. He’s written many books about brain function including This Is Your Brain on Music. He’ll talk about his latest book on brain function Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores The Power and Potential of Our Lives (Penguin Canada) on Jan. 30 at Knox Church.

Lately he’s turned his sights on aging and its impact on the brain. It’s not out of anger however.

“Writers write about what they notice and scientists investigate what they notice. I noticed that I was always surround by people much older than me — and younger. From childhood there were people in their 70s and 80s who were going like gangbusters. And there were people in their 50s and 60s who were slowing down and checking out.”

Years ago when he got to McGill, where he teaches, there were very senior people going full bore and “some others who just weren’t by their own admission.”

The existence of these two broad experiences intrigued him.

He affirms that experience and age confer many benefits. People can see patterns in things, they understand commonalities that younger people might miss.

“It’s certainly true for artists and musicians. This idea of getting better through experience certainly applies to doctors.

“If you need surgery and you have some vexing disease you are better off with a 70 year old doctor than a 30 year old one.

“We are living healthier than ever before and that’s less of a worry and with robotic surgery” an older surgeon can get the job done.

“You may not be able to climb a ladder but you can fly a kite.”

Technology is certainly a benefit in many ways, but one can’t but wonder whether our obsession with our smart phones may end up changing how we gain and retain knowledge.

“Technology has certainly at a rapid clip during our lifetimes. But there has always been technology and hand-wringing about it. Seneca (the Roman stoic philosopher) was concerned that as soon as we started writing things down on papyrus sheets we would lose academic rigour. The printing press was supposed to be the end of society.

“In my lifetime there are now pneumatic hammers. I would not say that a carpenter who uses one is any less skilled than one who doesn’t.”

Information technology does put the world at our fingertips and eliminates the need for investigate research. Levitin merely thinks there needs to be a balance in how we use the devices. “We need to take the time saved in getting the information and use it to analyse what we are being told.”

His initial motive for writing the book was not to offer encouragement to older people. “My motive was to read through about 4,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles so that you and everyone else wouldn’t have to. And then I’m just following the evidence where it leads. And I do find the evidence to be much more encouraging that I thought it might be.”

Those so-called senior moments are not necessarily an indication of a problem, he said.

“If you forget the word colander, that’s not a big deal. If you can’t remember what a colander is for then worry,” he said.

Coming to grips with the realities caused by an unprecedented number of baby boomers entering their senior years is one of the real purposes of Levitin’s book.

“Our societal narrative about what it means to be an older adult is out of step with what is actually happening and what the science tells us.”

That makes for bad policy, he says, and for misunderstanding and mistakes in judgment.

“There are still countries such as South Korea with mandatory retirement is 56. In Germany it’s 65 and legislation to extend it to 67. I was on a hiring committee for an organization in Germany and we were looking at terrific candidates who were 64 and 65 but we weren’t allowed to consider them.”

Because we are healthier, generally, than ever before and as the demographics point to there being more people over 65 than under five, we might need to rethink certain policies on retirement or labour force adjustments.

“The other thing I want to talk about in Ottawa is unlike all the other isms — racism and sexism — and prejudices against people from other countries or against LGBTQ+ individuals, there is not a national conversation on ageism and I would like to start one.”

One of the issues that this may confront is the lack of contact between older people and younger people. “That’s where the isms come from,” Levitin said.

“In my lab at McGill, in 2002, I had an Orthodox Jew and other people of different backgrounds and a young Muslim woman wanted to join the lab. She wore a hijab. I was curious to see how things would play out between her and the young Orthodox Jew.

“They noticed that they had for more in common than they had differences. Over time they became friends.”

Levitin said he got to be close to older mentors and the experience “was extraordinary.”

The record, by the way, was Meet The Monkees. He still has it. Because of his career in music in which he produced albums for bands such as Blue Öyster Cult, Chris Isaak and Joni Mitchell, he accumulated a large record collection of some 5,000 albums and 6,000 CDs. He’s sold most of those. Interestingly about a decade ago Levitin became friends with the late Peter Tork.

“I still love that record.”

Memories are made of this.

Daniel J. Levitin
Presented by the Ottawa International Writers Festival
Where: Knox Presbyterian Church, 120 Lisgar St.
When: Jan. 30 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information: writersfestival.org

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.