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  • Writer's picturechrisygay

Successful Aging Part 1

Recently, I’ve finished a book called Successful Aging by Daniel Levitin and within that book, he talks about the various parts of our lives that influence our later-aging selves. Many things impact our later years; some of those things we are born with while others are things that we learn or experience. In this report, I’d like to share some of those things that contribute towards successful aging. The author breaks down successful aging into 3 parts: the continually developing brain, the choices we make, and the new longevity. We’ll start our 3-part journey with the continually developing brain.

The Continually Developing Brain (Part 1)

The idea behind this section is that we don’t have to fall apart in every category as we age. Getting old doesn’t have to be as bad as what pop-culture has made it out to be (Bowling for Soup recently made a song about this). Change does occur and some of that change can be greatly positive. In the first section, we’ll talk about personality change.

Personality It took until the 1970s before people began to hold the idea that personality can change throughout one’s life. People like Nancy Bayley and Paul Baltes noted that infancy and old age are when the biggest changes in personality occur. There are 3 major things that play a role in personality change: Genetics, Culture, and Opportunity.

Genetics: Going back to biology class, genes do a lot more than just give us black hair or blue eyes, there are non-physical traits they provide information for. Genes can be awakened or put to sleep during specific times (e.g., a traumatic experience) through chemical modifications. This is called gene expression. So, how do genes impact our personality? They provide us with a basic life script that lays out general things for us to improvise from using the next major thing that contributes to our personality.

Culture: This plays an important role in our understanding of personality traits because many traits are culturally relative in that they don’t always mean the same thing across different cultures or even families. Family cultural values help shape us and can change who we become. The Big 5 is a list of personality traits of which everyone is on a spectrum with, and our measurements can change throughout our life. For example, as we age, we will typically become more agreeable and conscientious. Men tend to change in this way more than women.

Opportunity: There are two parts to answer how opportunity contributes to our personality change. The first part is through how the world treats us. The Washington Post said that the actress Kristen Stewart is the poster child for a look millennials call “resting b**** face”. In this look, one naturally has deep creases around their mouth, eyebrows curled downwards, and a squinty look to their eyelids. Now think, what if people avoided you just because of your natural look? Eventually, it would be hard to open to others and you may end up cold even if you’re an amazing person. The second part is the situations we find ourselves in. Here, personality can change upon circumstance like whether you have money to give away to a person in need or not. Sometimes I think about donating to that red bucket set out in front of the grocery store, but I tell myself I don’t have enough money to be donating (after all, I do fit the poor college student stereotype). Perhaps, I’m just not as generous as I thought.

All of these contribute in varying degrees towards personality and can fluctuate as time goes on. The next thing we’ll learn about in the continually developing brain is memory because we all know how important it is once we get up there in age and need to remember what time Susan said she was coming to visit!

Memory We’ve all had times where we walk into a room in our house and forget what we were doing or why we entered (it doesn’t just happen to older folks either) and in this section you’ll get to know how memory systems work and tips to increase your accuracy in memory. How (long-term) memory works: The memory systems we have are implicit and explicit. Implicit is the kind of memory that you know of without having to think about. For example, driving becomes second nature after many successful months and years behind the wheel. The independent parts of shifting, using the pedals, and steering all become bundled into a sequence we automatically know when we go out to drive. Procedural memory falls under implicit memory and would be a more accurate explanation of this example.

Explicit can be broken down further into 2 types: semantic memory, which includes facts, definitions, and things you know but do not know when you learned them, and episodic memory, which encompasses things you know that involve a particular incident. There is a sense of you in episodic memories. An example would be your first kiss or where you were when 9/11 happened.

So that’s the breakdown of what memory types there are, but what about our question of how it works? In our brains there are 2 regions that are crucial for certain types of memory: the hippocampus and the medial temporal lobe. These are not needed for implicit memory but are important for forming explicit memories. Once memories are formed, they are stored throughout the brain and can be brought up again when that pattern of brain cells fire together. I remember hearing, “neurons that fire together, wire together” meaning the more times you think about a memory, the easier it is to remember it. This leads us to our next section which is how to strengthen your memory.

Strategies to strengthen memory One of the best ways to increase deep memory processing in your brain is to pay attention. Forming robust memories includes adding the details that make that memory unique. It wasn’t just a frog, it was a cute, orange-eyed, tree-climbing frog and it stuck onto the white birch tree and was completely vertical! When you add details, it helps make the experience come to life. As we age, we tend to have a harder time focusing due to weakening GABA-sensitive neurons, so this may take some effort, but is still completely possible.

Drawing is another great way to solidify a memory as when you draw, you are essentially putting that idea from your head into a physical form in which you can visualize it and create a story from it. The next time you want to remember something, consider drawing it out. Other ways to help remember something is by making lists and calendar reminders. These tools are great for keeping track of what’s going on, but I wouldn’t necessarily use them for remembering long-term memories.

Routines: Having a routine helps with remembering as it is never changing. I always put my student ID and keys into a dish in the kitchen once I get home because it helps me not have to worry about those items getting lost. With a routine, it is easier to remember where things are and can save a lot of time and headache.

Memory is an incredibly important piece of who you are. Your experiences and associations with different events all make up a big part of your life story. I found that the reminiscence bump is what many adults remember in their older years, and I’d encourage you to go out and create new, positive memories that you could take into your older years and look fondly back on.

The Continually Developing Brain encompasses far more than just personality and memory change. I’d strongly suggest you read about the other ways our brains are continuously changing throughout our lives in the Successful Aging book. The author goes into detail about other pieces that contribute to our change of perception, intelligence, social factors, and pain as we age. In the next part of this series, we’ll go over the choices we make that can impact how we age.

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