Tradition says that as you get older, you gradually lose your marbles as dottiness and dementia take over from the acuity of younger days. In this cogent book, Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University, shows that this is just another myth. Quite the reverse, as we get older we actually get better at thinking.
So what about the truth of experience? Why are there so many dotty old folks about? Cohen shows two reasons for this: disease and fitness. First, brain decay is largely related to diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s. Secondly, the rule of the mind is the same as with the body: use it or lose it. If you keep your mind active then it will reward you by staying active and increasing in capability.
This is good news, as it means that outside of the chance of illness, by choice you can stay alert and bright to the end of your days. In particular, Cohen identifies five activities to sustain power, clarity and subtlety of mind:
- Exercise mentally
- Exercise physically
- Pick challenging leisure activities
- Achieve mastery
- Establish strong social networks
Cohen describes ‘developmental intelligence’ in terms of three forms of thinking that actually improve with age:
- Relativistic thinking, where understanding is based on a synthesized combination of disparate views. Absolute truth is abandoned in favor of more realistic relative truths.
- Dualist thinking, where contradictions in opposing views are uncovered and opposites are held in mind at the same time without judgment. In this way, opposing views can both be accepted as valid.
- Systematic thinking allows the person to see the forest as well as the trees, helicoptering up to understand the bigger picture. The thinker is thus not trapped in personal and petty issues.
To put all this into a developmental context, Cohen extends and deepens the common final ‘old age’ stage into four phases:
- Re-evaluation, from mid-thirties to mid-sixties, where we realize our mortality and reconsider our lives.
- Liberation, from mid-fifties to mid-seventies, where the question is ‘If not now, when?’ as people experiment with new ways.
- Summing up, from late sixties through eighties, where people seek to share, give something back and complete unfinished business.
- Encore, from late seventies onwards, where major life themes are re-stated and re-affirmed.
This is one of my favorite kinds of book: one that is rooted in sound academic research (as opposed to the kitchen wisdom of many other books) and which is written for the common person. The result is a readable and authoritative text that is easy to digest and includes many real-life examples.