How to stay sharp and engaged as we age.
Sitting in his corner office at Wind River in Alameda, Jerry Fiddler often looked out the window to the Bay, where local sailing schools took new students out for training.
“They were always taking the kids out in dinghies to teach them to sail,” says Fiddler, a Berkeley resident who served as Wind River’s CEO and chairman from 1981 to 2008. “They looked like they were having so much fun falling out of the boats that I wanted to try it, too.”
Then in his early 50s, Fiddler was an unusual candidate for a sailor. He didn’t grow up on the sea. He had been an avid windsurfer in his youth, but had given up that pastime years ago after a back injury. And, of course, he wasn’t exactly a kid. But once he made up his mind, he was determined to learn how to sail.
Today, at 60, Fiddler is skipper of his own boat, a Catalina 36 sailboat in the Berkeley-based OCSC fleet. He keeps busy as the chairman of alternative energy company Solazyme in San Francisco and as an adjunct engineering professor at U.C. Berkeley—but he still finds time to go sailing every week.
“Being physically and mentally active is important as we get older, but it’s not just doing aerobics or crossword puzzles,” says Fiddler. Sailing, he says, is not only physically demanding. It requires awareness of water conditions, wind direction, boat traffic, and dozens of contingencies about the surroundings, as well as effective communication with the crew. “In sailing, you always have to be thinking ahead,” he says. “When there’s a connection between what you’re thinking and what you’re doing, something with meaning and consequences, that’s what keeps you sharp.”
Sixty—Fiddler’s age—isn’t considered so old these days. Experts define old age as when a person approaches or surpasses the average human life expectancy, which in the United States is 75 for men, 80 for women. And while we still have only a limited understanding of the way the body and brain change with age, experts now believe that a healthy brain is less affected by aging than previously believed. By keeping our minds active and inquisitive, we might be able to stay sharp for our entire lives.
“My dad seemed a lot older when he was my age,” says Fiddler. “He was thinking about retirement at my age, but I can’t even imagine that.”
Fiddler sought out sailing because it was new, challenging, and exciting—all qualities that are key to lifelong learning, says Susan Hoffman, director of the U.C. Berkeley Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), a year-round program of non-graded courses, lectures, and special events for those 50 and older. The U.C. Berkeley program is one of 116 such university-affiliated programs nationwide currently supported by the San Francisco–based Bernard Osher Foundation and designed to foster a love of learning at any stage of life.
“Keeping sharp really requires a balancing act between keeping your mind, your body, and your spirit healthy,” says Hoffman, who also helped found the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at San Francisco State University, and has been a writer, filmmaker, and sponsor for the Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit, a group of entrepreneurs who serve the over-45 boomer demographic. “Part of that is stimulating the mind by novelty, challenge, and variation.”
Classes at the U.C. Berkeley institute span a variety of disciplines, with approximately 65 six-week courses offered each year. The fall 2012 catalogue, for example, includes a history course examining Afghanistan’s role in the world, an introductory screenwriting workshop, a cross-cultural survey of fairytales from feminist and Freudian interpretations, an outdoor workshop on French landscape painting, and even a countdown to next month’s presidential election led by KPFA political journalist Larry Bensky. Like Bensky’s class, most emphasize knowledge that can help students engage—or stay engaged—with the world.
Contrary to the common belief that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, older people are in some ways better primed to learn than their younger counterparts. For one thing, while young students have very little choice about their school curriculum, adults are free to pursue learning in the areas that most interest them. Also, Hoffman notes, they tend to be better at pattern recognition. It’s a cliché to say that older people are wiser because they’ve had more life experience, but science may bear that out. More developed pattern recognition skills mean that older people are better at predicting future events and dealing with uncertain situations.
“Not all changes with age are negative,” says Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus of neuroscience at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and a leading figure in the study of brain plasticity for over 30 years. “There’s a great virtue to being older and wiser. We wouldn’t want a wartime England being led by a 20-year-old Winston Churchill.”
Hoffman points out that the right and left sides of the brain soften with time, making it easier for information to pass between the hemispheres. The traditional belief that the left brain controls logic and the right brain controls creativity isn’t exactly accurate, she says, although for most people the right side is oriented toward visual input while the left is dominant in abstract analysis. Even so, many brain functions—language, for instance—require that the two halves work in tandem. Scientists believe that the left temporal lobe is critical for language comprehension and grammar, while the right half controls the cadence, tone, and accent of our speech.
As Hoffman explains, current theory holds that the brain is able to remap neural pathways in response to new experiences—an ability known as neuroplasticity. So feeding the brain a steady diet of new experiences may help protect it from deterioration.
As we age, Hoffman says, we tend to think in more abstract terms, the mind learning through repetition to automatically ignore small details that it considers irrelevant. That’s the reason why you can sometimes recall every aspect of your childhood home in perfect clarity, yet don’t have a clue what you had for lunch yesterday. But keeping active and engaged in learning combats this natural tendency toward abstraction, Hoffman says.
Along the same brain-protecting lines, Merzenich recommends a daily walk or bicycle ride, but not on autopilot—the point is to pay close attention to your surroundings along the way. “Notice the small details,” he says. “Think about the landscape around you. Later, when you’re home again, try to reconstruct the things you’ve witnessed—the sights, sounds, and smells—in your mind. Look for surprises everywhere—they’re brain food.
“We have relatively limited learning later in life,” continues Merzenich. “So it’s important to seek out things to learn. Maintaining your faculties requires a certain amount of tension, so you need to resist the natural tendency to slip into the easy chair and out of life. One of the dumbest ideas is that retirement should be easy and you should never have to worry. When people are asked, ‘What are you doing with your retirement?’ and they respond, ‘As little as I can,’ I know that’s the fastest possible route to trouble.”
According to Hoffman, to really benefit from new experiences requires “challenge and engagement.” It takes more than accidental exposure to jolt the brain out of its rut. “Challenge,” in Hoffman’s view, means a new experience that pushes you outside of your familiar comfort zone. “Engagement” means not only thinking deeply, but also having a personal investment in the activity. Without some level of engagement, anything becomes rote busywork, she says.
In 2009, 30 students from the U.C. Berkeley Osher Lifelong Learning Institute conducted an experiment on just this topic. During a visit to the Berkeley Art Museum, they viewed two controversial exhibits: a group of oil paintings depicting the torture of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, and photos of injured athletes. Participants were asked to spend time contemplating any particular piece that they found “immediately difficult or challenging,” and to complete an exit survey.
Some students expressed immediate disgust or anger at the graphic art, but those who spent more time looking at the paintings, says Hoffman, “saw their initial responses (often of disgust or anger or fear) translate into a deeper sense of meaning. In a great majority of participants, the sustained viewing—moving from a glance to a vision—provided the experience of stretching and growing and knowing.
“We need to be taking on new challenges throughout our lives,” says Hoffman, “and each person needs to decipher for themselves what is healthy and energetic for them.”
Taking classes, though, is far from the only way to stay engaged with the world. Keeping involved in any activity that has personal meaning gives the same benefit.
For example, Dublin mortgage lender Joe Parsons, 67, continuously researches the newest twists in mortgage laws to help clients finance their homes. For 10 years, Parsons has owned and managed PFS Funding in Dublin, but since the financial meltdown, he’s worked even harder to help his clients navigate the confusion. “I look forward to coming in to work,” he says. “This is something that’s endlessly challenging—but also a chance to do real good.”
Then there’s 85-year-old Richard Wren of Oakland, who wrote and published his first book at 82, the culmination of a lifelong dream for this former insurance broker.
Wren decided to make good use of the storytelling skills he’d honed while raising his four daughters, and finally try his own hand at a book. The result was Casey’s Slip, a gritty yarn about a vagabond sailor and a grizzled biker thrown together to solve a murder mystery. Wren, who self-published the book in 2011, set it in the Oakland and El Cerrito locations that he’d visited his whole life, and based many of the characters on friends. But Casey’s Slip also required original research. Wren called rangers at Yosemite National Park to ask about park geography and interviewed workers at the San Francisco and Oakland coroners’ offices to make sure that he got the police procedures right.
“Writing keeps me active physically and mentally, so I don’t have time to lose my mind,” says Wren, who is now at work on another book, this one about a Yosemite ranger on the trail of an international poaching gang.
As important as it is to always keep seeking out new and challenging life experiences, novelty is only part of the puzzle. As Hoffman notes, keeping the brain healthy is also dependent on the health of the body and soul. Many seniors subscribe to the old adage that a healthy body breeds a healthy mind, looking for ways to keep moving even if they don’t have the same energy or strength they did in earlier years. Figuring out how to maintain emotional well-being at a time of life when so many variables are shifting, however, tends to be a more complicated undertaking.
For eight years, gerontologist Eric Shapira has counseled seniors and their families through his private practice, Aging Mentor Services, in Montara near Half Moon Bay. In dealing with his clients, Shapira says, he notices one key difference between people who stay sharp as they age and those who don’t. People with an active social life, who stay connected with friends and family, keep their mental faculties relatively intact, he says. People who withdraw into isolation quickly deteriorate.
“As we age, we go to more funerals than weddings,” says Shapira. “When we’re young, we’re forced to be social at school or at work. But when we’re old, it’s a choice. We can choose to be isolated.” Or, sadly, others may choose to isolate us. Like other gerontology professionals, Shapira believes that the association between aging and declining brain function is linked to the way our culture tends to marginalize the elderly.
“It’s all or nothing in our society,” says Andrew Scharlach, Kleiner Professor of Aging in the social welfare department at U.C. Berkeley, and director of the campus Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services. “As soon as you start to slow down, you’re immediately shut out. You’re asked to retire or we take away your driver’s license. Instead of redesigning the world to help us all stay involved, we make it so you can’t keep up.” The result of such exclusion is predictable: apathy, depression, and a gradual dampening of the spirit and brain.
Social interactions make people feel good for a reason, Shapira says—they stimulate the release of a hormone in the brain called dopamine, which regulates mood. Joan Price, Sebastopol author of Naked at Our Age, a guide to lovemaking for seniors, points out that many older people continue to enjoy active sex lives. Among other things, sex is a beneficial exercise that helps enhance blood flow to the brain and releases hormones that fight depression. At a time in life when it’s easy to become isolated, she believes, it’s more important than ever to find other people to share your life, in the bedroom or otherwise.
But any sort of human connection can help keep your mind working. “Every day you need to exercise the social person you are,” says Merzenich. “You can be among friends remotely if you can’t get around, even if you’re talking on Skype.”
Last year, Nancy Schimmel, 77, was worried about her memory. A professional storyteller, the lifelong Berkeley resident had always had a bad memory for numbers, but now she was having a hard time remembering other things, too—like names. When she discovered a website of online puzzle games advertised as a way to keep intellectually fit, she thought she’d found the key to reviving her memory. But she soon became annoyed with what she saw as pointless busywork.
Instead, Schimmel found a uniquely meaningful way to work out her memory, by joining Berkeley’s Occupy Movement, helping found the Occuppella singers, writing song parodies, and singing in public.
“I do believe standing and singing for an hour at a time on street corners is physically good for my brain, and the sociability of it all is good for my mind,” says Schimmel, whose mother was well-known Berkeley folksinger Malvina Reynolds. “I’ve been political all my life but never felt so good about it, and I think that is good for my mind too.”
After a lifetime of hard work, the autumn years are a time to pursue the heart’s desires. And those who take care of themselves well are more likely to find enjoyment in this long-anticipated era. As Merzenich reiterates, a diminished life is not the biologically inevitable result of aging—“it’s not just about senility,” he says. “It’s about retreat, about becoming smaller, more boring and repetitive, more opinionated and less kind.
“ . . . Why live older life in retreat?” he asks. “Why shrink when you can continue to grow?”
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly.