Looking age in the eye: Daniel J. Levitin on how to live well

“We tend to think of life as comprising these developmental stages ... and that after some point — 65, 70, whatever — it’s just decline," the acclaimed author and neuroscientist says. "And that’s not borne out by the research."

The Montreal Gazette 9 minute read February 14, 2020

The numbers don’t lie.

In 2018, 17.2 per cent of Canadians were 65 or older. By 2030, according to Statistics Canada, that number will be up to 23 per cent. There are more of us, and what’s more, we’re living longer. But are we living better? The jury is very much out on that question.

“We need to learn to think more in terms of health span, and less in terms of simple life span,” said part-time Montrealer Daniel J. Levitin. The writer, cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist and musician sensed a gap in the literature on the subject and, as he has done with such bestselling titles as This Is Your Brain on Music and The Organized Mind, he set out to fill it.

“My parents are in their 80s and I wanted to recommend a book for them,” the 62-year-old said last week. “I looked and looked, but couldn’t find one. I realized that a lot of the new neuroscience hadn’t trickled down to the average person, so I read roughly 4,000 peer-reviewed papers, thinking, ‘How would I explain this to my parents?’ ”

The result is Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives (Allen Lane, 528 pages, $34), a wide-ranging work that confirms the author’s flair for marshalling voluminous research and tested science into an accessible whole — a layered practice in which, in his words, “what might seem like superficial things are stand-ins for really big issues.”

“Part of the societal narrative that I want to push back on 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, 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.”

As for practical application, said Levitin, “The book wasn’t intended as a problem-solving book, a ‘what do I do about my elderly aunt?’ book. What I’m really concerned with is that we start talking about and preparing for (old age) sooner.”

A big part of that, he stressed, has to do with making the appropriate decision, whenever possible, about where you live: the common desire to retire to a rural or exurban setting, for example, comes with complications. In Successful Aging, a three-part catchphrase — ice cream, lunch and light bulbs — serves as a way into the idea.

“If you want to just walk down the street and get an ice cream and be surrounded by people, are you living in a way that allows you to be spontaneous?” Levitin said. “Are you in a place socially and geographically where you can have a standing (weekly) lunch with someone? As for the light bulb, are you really going to climb a ladder to replace it, or is there someone who can help you?”


Another popular perception Levitin would like to help dispel is the idea that people need less sleep as they get older. 

“When we’re younger, as with other things, we can be somewhat cavalier about sleep,” he said. “But as we get older some bodily systems become less efficient, and one of the things that declines is the ability of your biological clock to reset itself. Sleep hygiene is the idea that you have to look after and tend to your sleep cycle by going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time every day, insofar as possible. Older people tend to get less sleep, but they need eight or nine hours just like the rest of us. Many cases of Alzheimer’s are misdiagnosed cases of sleep deprivation.”

For all the growing unease about possible long-term effects of online culture, the digital realm is undeniably where we’re having more and more of our interactions — a situation Levitin is at pains to warn against.

“I like that in the three minutes every morning I allocate to Facebook I can quickly catch up on people who are far from me,” he said. “But it’s not a substitute for face-to-face conversation. We’ve been sold a lack of nuance in the name of efficiency, but in the long run it’s less efficient, because nuance contributes to efficiency.”


Another prominent Montreal science writer, Susan Pinker dealt with the subject above in her 2015 book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier. She said last week that her subsequent research — “following my nose,” she called it — has underlined her findings.

“The research has continued to indicate that in-person social interaction has a different impact on our brains and bodies than digital interaction,” said Pinker, 62. Although she stressed that one needs to be careful when it comes to anti-digital jeremiads.

“I’ve found that there’s no wrath quite like the wrath of a grandparent who’s been told that Skype isn’t as good as the real thing,” she said. “Don’t try to tell someone that seeing her grandchild’s face on a screen is a bad thing.”

The increasing recognition of the need to balance out the atomizing effects of the internet — in short, to get out more — can be a challenge for those who are more inclined toward solitude and introspection.

“You can’t just will yourself out of that,” Levitin acknowledged. “But for many adults, after a certain age neurochemical shifts cause them to be more outgoing. Grandparents do tend to talk and communicate more than parents, and it’s the micro-connections that are crucial — talking to your postal carrier, to the person next in line at the checkout counter at the grocery store. It brings you out of loneliness.

“But 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. I write about Sonny Rollins, Donald Fagen, Malcolm Gladwell — people who really seem to enjoy their solitude. I see Gladwell in New York City having lunch alone. I’ve never seen him lunching with someone.”

The need for what Pinker identifies as “third spaces” — places other than home and the workplace where people can gather to satisfy a natural craving for human contact — is increasingly evident.

“If your municipality doesn’t create them, then people will find them,” Pinker said. “Tim’s (Tim Hortons) is a great Canadian example of that.”

The relative paucity of such places is an example of something Pinker decries with regard to the elderly: a frustrating gap between need and service. 

“I would love to see more policy efforts directed at the fact that we are living longer, and people who are living longer want to live well,” she said. “One of my biggest bugaboos about some of the cultural scenes here is that they’re not accessible to the seniors who would love to participate. My mom loves classical music, but my dad has passed away and she’s having mobility issues, so she’s not going to go by herself. But if the orchestra, say, convened a group of seniors and gave them a good deal on tickets, and had concerts for them, possibly during the day when it’s easier for them to get out, they’d get a huge number of subscribers. I don’t think they see it that way. They’re upset that their market is greying, as opposed to saying, ‘That’s what our market is, let’s go get them.’ ”


In much of the talk around age, the elephant in the room is the need to overcome deep-rooted cultural ageism. Progress is being made, but it’s an ongoing battle.

“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. If you’re 60, 62, 65, it’s virtually impossible to get a promotion, very very difficult to move into a new company. Even in the arts, I’ve seen musicians and artists denied the opportunities younger people would get, for reasons having nothing to do with talent.”

Another question that needs addressing involves the growing existential crisis posed by climate change: Can we have more and more people staying active for longer and longer without overtaxing an environment already at crisis point? Levitin believes we can.

“It seems to me that if you’ve got more people working and contributing to the economy, rather than drawing on a strained social insurance system, that’s a good thing,” he said. “And if you’ve got more older people with experience and wisdom helping younger adults solve problems — wisdom being the aggregate of experiences, and older adults being much better at problem solving — that’s a good thing, too.”



Masters of time

There is no current shortage of people who have remained vital cultural presences far past the age when previous eras might have seen them step politely aside. Here are six of them.

Paul Simon

Anyone who witnessed Simon’s remarkable 2018 concert at the Bell Centre — 2 1/2 hours of high-intensity performance, including a spot of lively Cajun two-step dancing — had to be impressed at his protean energy and commitment to his art. “I’ve known him for many years,” said Levitin. “He said he decided (around) age 60, starting with the You’re the One album (in 2000), to raise his game and hone his craft to a new level.” Not bad for someone who’d been no slouch through age 59.

(See also: Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Paul McCartney, Elton John.)

The Dalai Lama

His Holiness made a deep impression on Levitin when the writer visited him in India last year.

“He was 83 and he had just published his 125th book,” Levitin said. “He’s a very happy guy — a bit of a prankster. He told me, ‘The thing I’ve discovered about being 83 is that when you tell people you don’t want to travel, they say OK.’ ”

Margaret Atwood

The remarkable ongoing impact of The Handmaid’s Tale has underlined something we may sometimes take for granted: Atwood has been at the centre of our culture for longer than any other writer. At 80 she shows no sign of slowing down, and of all the praise we can bestow on her, there’s none more telling than the fact that we have no real idea what she might do next.


Charles Taylor

The acclaimed and influential 88-year-old philosopher is Susan Pinker’s nomination for this list. “Everybody has their own way of being human, something we each have to find in our own way,” he told the Montreal Gazette in 2018. “That’s something that needs to be articulated, and you find you’re missing something if you’re not going outside the usual objective factors and quantifiable things.”

Larry David

Hailed as a style icon on the cover of the February issue of GQ magazine, David was already something of a late bloomer when he came to prominence as co-creator of Seinfeld. Now 72 and still very much visible as the face of Curb Your Enthusiasm, David found his niche by acknowledging — indeed, embracing and celebrating — his inner curmudgeon. Happiness is where you find it.

Sheila Fischman

The doyenne of Canadian literary translation remains on the job at 82, rendering Quebec writers like Kim Thúy accessible to English-language readers just as she did for the first wave of modern Québécois writers in the 1960s, and for every generation since.