2015 March/April

Download the newsletter in PDF format: Issue_91_Positive_Aging_Newsletter_March-April_2015.pdf

March/April, 2015

The Positive Aging Newsletter by Kenneth and Mary Gergen
Sponsored by the Taos Institute (www.taosinstitute.net)

Wall Street Journal

Issue No. 91


Adjusting the Sails
When speaking to various groups about positive aging, the two of us sometimes confront a critical voice. It is the voice of the “realist,” and it goes something like this: “You make aging sound like a walk in the park. If you just whistle a happy tune, all the ills just fly away. Aging is not like that. Bodies give out, and people suffer…more than at any other time of life.” The critic has a point. How many people do we know whose knees, hips, backs, or rotator cuffs are sources of misery, or whose arthritis or murmuring hearts begin to limit their activities? At the same time, we are also fond of a slogan we encountered the other day, “We cannot control the winds, but we can adjust the sails.” In effect, perhaps there are inevitabilities over the life course, but they do not determine how we respond to them. We have choices, and frustrating changes in the body’s capacities are an opportunity to exercise our creative muscles.

Certainly this is the lesson handed down to us by previous generations. As the seasons change, for example, so have we creatively conjured new possibilities. Icy winters inspired us to learn the joy of sliding down snowy mountains on wooden planks; the rainy season in the Netherlands gave birth to a thousand cozy cafes; with a scorching summer sun, laziness became a virtue; the leaves began dropping from the trees in the fall, and we learned to treasure those venues in which we could gaze with awe on the re-coloration of nature. And so it can be in the case of failing bodies.

Here we also begin to appreciate and salute the everyday creativity of those around us. We should honor those who bravely show us how to adjust our sails:

  • Alice, whose dissolving vertebrae meant giving up her love of dancing, but then fell in love with sculpting.
  • Hilda, whose failing eyesight meant giving up reading - her favorite pastime – and who now adores books on tape.
  • Frank, whose knees would no longer permit him to continue his lifelong enjoyment of tennis, but who has become an avid gardener.
  • Henry, whose breathing problems no longer allow him to hike, but who began to explore his dream of writing a memoir on his military experiences.

There are times we think that the working world in which most of us spend our adult lives may cripple these creative capacities. We are so bent on problem solving that we fail to consider problem dissolution. Thus, if the body fails, we simply want to “fix it.” This may be useful up to a point, but what must ultimately be mastered is the capacity to transform the failure into an opportunity for a walk in a new park.

Mary and Ken Gergen


Leisure and Staying Smart
In a previous Newsletter we summarized research suggesting that having a challenging job during the working years contributed to maintaining cognitive skills during the aging process. Or, one might say, a job that helped you to exercise your brain could set a good course for aging. The researchers in a new study, however, asked an additional question: what about leisure pursuits? Couldn’t leisure activities that were challenging have the same effects as what one did at work? Could such activities as reading, playing complex games, or working on challenging projects, have long-term benefits? And what about social lives that were filled with lively challenges – in conversations, planning events, taking care of others, and so on? Could these also be important?

To answer such questions, over 800 people from a longitudinal study of aging in Sweden, who were at least 77 years old, were given cognitive assessments in 1992 and 2002. They were also evaluated for their midlife occupations and leisure activities in 1968 and 1981. In agreement with previous research, this study indicated that the complexity of midlife work was related to late-life cognitive competence. Interestingly, however, the same was true for leisure activities that were either highly complex or highly social. So, even if one has worked in a job that was not very challenging intellectually, one’s leisure activities can enhance long term cognitive skills. It is also interesting, that work and play activities are not additive. If one’s work is complex, playing chess on the weekends will not add to one’s cognitive capacities.

There is every reason to believe that contributions to our mental abilities can still be made in the older years. The brain retains its plasticity. So, given that most people retire from their jobs, and still have many years to live, having a challenging hobby or a rich social life should help maintain one’s intellectual capacities.

From: The Role of Midlife Occupational Complexity and Leisure Activity in Late-Life Cognition by Ross Andel, Merril Silverstein, and Ingemar Kareholt, Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. 70, 314-321.

Beating the Blues with the Internet
There is more to be said about leisure activities than how they may contribute to mental functioning. Consider: Being retired and alone can be a threat to well-being, especially in the older years. As we have proposed in previous editions of the Newsletter, it is together that we construct the value of life and its content. When living alone it is difficult to sustain the enthusiasms – both trivial and profound - that result from daily interaction with others. It is thus no surprise to find depression and suicide most elevated in the later years, and most especially among those who live alone. Yet, the increased availability of the internet transforms the character of “being alone.” At any moment, 24/7, one may find eager conversationalists available, on virtually any topic. The question, however, is whether internet relations can reduce the probability of depression. Can the internet chase away the blues?

In this study over 3,000 older Americans from the national Health and Retirement survey were assessed 4 times from 2002-2008. The respondents were evaluated for signs of depression and for the extent of their internet use. The major finding was that internet use was correlated with a 30% reduction in reports of depression. This result was found for the sample, generally, but was especially profound for older people who were living alone. When others were living in the household, the effects were lessened.

The present study did not analyze the kind of internet use in which the sample engaged, whether for example, there was on-line conversation, news feeds, entertainment, and so on. This would be useful research for the future. Interestingly, however, the Finnish government has set in motion a program to enhance internet availability for the elderly. However, as the present study suggests, one should not wait for a government decision.

From: Internet Use and Depression Among Retired Older Adults in the United States: A Longitudinal Analysis by Sheila R. Cotton, George Ford, Sherry Ford, & Timothy M. Hale, The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences & Social Sciences, B. 2014, 69B, 763-771


How to Live a Long Time: A Global Search
Researchers, including a team from National Geographic, scoured the globe, looking for the people who lives the longest. The following places, called Blue Zones, were selected:

  • Barbagia region of Sardinia – Mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
  • Ikaria, Greece – Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – World’s lowest rates of middle age mortality, second highest concentration of male centenarians.
  • Seventh Day Adventists – Highest concentration is around Loma Linda, California. They live 10 years longer than other North Americans.
  • Okinawa, Japan – Females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.

The team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers, and epidemiologists looked for the common denominators among all places.

Nine characteristics were found:

  1. Move Naturally. The world’s oldest people live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and do much of their house and yard work by hand.
  2. Purpose. The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” This translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” A sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
  3. Down Shift. Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.
  4. 80% Rule. “Hara hachi bu” – the Okinawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.
  5. Plant Slant. Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month. Serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of a deck of cards.
  6. Wine @ 5. People in all Blue Zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all weekend and have 14 drinks on Saturday.
  7. Belong. All but five of the 263 centenarians interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.
  8. Loved Ones First. Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes).
  9. Right Tribe. The world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.

To make it to age 100, you have to have won the genetic lottery. But most of us have the capacity to make it well into our early 90’s and largely without chronic disease. As the Adventists demonstrate, the average person’s life expectancy could increase by 10-12 years by adopting a Blue Zones lifestyle.

From: Reverse Engineering Longevity, by Dan Buettner

Walk Hard, Walk Easy, Live Longer

For those of us who do not live in a Blue Zone, how might we take up some of their habits, especially if we do not walk to work? Recent news offers interesting information on optimal exercise. Ten years ago, scientists at a medical school in Japan created an exercise program that has done wonders for the participants. In the original experiment, walkers between ages 44 and 78 completed five sets of specific walking activities for a total of thirty minutes three times a week. A control group of walkers walked at a continuous, moderate rate for this period of time. After five months the fitness and health of the control group barely improved. For the experimental walkers, significant improvements were found for aerobic fitness, leg strength and blood-pressure readings. The effective walking exercise was the following:

  • For three minutes, the walkers walk at a fast pace (somewhere between 6 and 7 on a ten point scale of exertion).
  • For three minutes they gently stroll.
  • Repeat this scenario five times for a total of 30 minutes. Do this 3 times a week.

Following up on their successful walkers two years later, the researchers found that almost 70% of the walkers continued to follow this regimen and had retained or improved their health gains. What could be an easier and cheaper way to get a significant health boost?

From: Walk Hard. Walk Easy. Repeat. By Gretchen Reynolds. New York Times, 2.22.15. pg. 80.

Readers Respond:

Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman writes:
Dear Mary,
I write this on the eve of Tu Bishvat, the New Year for the trees, and on the day following Groundhog Day. In the film, "Groundhog Day," we see a character doomed to repeat the same day, in all of its mundane details, endlessly. How different is Tu Bishvat. Now, in the middle of winter, we celebrate renewal. Why now? Because this is the season at which the sap begins to rise within the trees of the land of Israel, signal of the new beginning of spring.

Beyond midlife, we, too, can experience renewal and fruitfulness, as the Psalmist writes and I translate: "May we grow fruitful as we age, ripe and abundant and sage. Keep our hearts open to all we face, present to goodness, even a trace. Renew us, let our spirits soar, sustain us, our Rock, for ever more."

You can taste a sample of Jewish Wisdom For Growing Older: Finding Your Grit and Grace Beyond Midlife, my newest book, in my brand-new blogpost, "What Calls You Beyond Midlife?"

I've just returned from Jerusalem, where I presented at the international conference on Jewish spiritual care. In the coming months, I'm looking forward to teaching at the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Spiritual Directors International, Congregation Bet Simchat Torah (NYC) and Congregation Beth Evergreen (CO).

On this New Year for the trees, I wish you juicy, fruitful and abundant growth and flowering.

In blessing,

Nell Smith ‪‬ writes:

Dear Ken and Mary - I love your Positive Aging Newsletter.

It has been part of my “keeping up with what’s new in ageing” for almost two decades.

As a result of your work and that of Ken Dychtwald who first alerted me to the demographic in his book Age Wave, followed by the work of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in From Ageing to Sage-ing that I was inspired to use my career development background to create a workshop to facilitate the possibilities and opportunities for those over 50 – Retire to the Life You Design. This work has now resulted in my newly published book, Retire to the Life You Love – Practical Tools for Designing Your Meaningful Future, with emphasis on the practical tools and the meaningful.

This book contains the holistic models and tools that I either created or used with permission that further the awareness of the possibilities and opportunities of an ageing population to a larger audience.

Thank you for all the good work that you do,

Norman Molesko, an Ambassador For Seniors, wishes to share the following website with you: www.losangelespoetsociety.org/#!norman-molesko/c14lx
(We should add that Molesko himself is a poet, a performer, and a poster child for the Young Oldies, who are involved in life’s bustling action, without regard for biological age.)


  • The American Society on Aging (ASA) is now accepting proposals to present at the 2016 Aging in America Conference, March 20–24 in Washington, DC. ASA is always looking for new models, innovative programs and research-to-practice presentations for the conference. This is a fabulous opportunity to share your program developments and new ideas with this conference community of nearly 3,000 multidisciplinary professionals who, like you, care about improving the lives of older adults. The deadline to submit is June 1, 2015. Space for workshops is limited, so plan to submit soon. You can submit your proposal at www.asaging.org/aia.
  • September 18-20, 2015: The 2nd Healthy and Active Aging
    Conference, Shanghai, China. For more information see www.engii.org/conf/HAAC/2015Sep
  • November 18-22, 2015, GSA, 2015, the Gerontological Society of America’s annual scientific meeting. “Aging as a Lifelong Process” in Orlando, FL. Registration and housing open June 2015. For more information visit: www.geron.org/2015

Information for Readers:

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