Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger, and Happierby Peter Spiers, Brian Williams
They can be seen in communities throughout the country-- those amazingly hale, hearty, and happy older folks who are having fun, have a million friends, are sharp as tacks, and look like they'll live forever. Their secret-- revealed and explained in MASTER CLASS-- is an active lifestyle that blends moving, thinking, socializing and creating.
Through inspirational stories from active seniors, supported by the latest research in the fields of psychology and neuro-science, MASTER CLASS shows how to build an enriching lifestyle on the foundation of favorite activities. Author Peter Spiers, Senior Vice President of Road Scholar, the top-notch life-long learning organization, provides easy-to-follow charts that allow readers to break out of their daily routines into Moving/Thinking/Socializing/Creating. By filling the gaps with a selection from 25 "Master Activities," such as learning a musical instrument, playing tennis, volunteering and more, they'll create a happy, holistic, brain-healthy lifestyle that's rich and meaningful.
- Wall Street Journal "
Peter Spiers's new book MASTER CLASS is a wonderful exploration of the journey to be traveled by the Baby Boom Generation, the 76 million of us who are awakening to a wonderful opportunity of self-discovery. The book is filled with personal stories, tools, and practical advice on how to live all life to the fullest, how to remain engaged and a lifelong learner, and to make the right choices for successful aging. As one whose career is dedicated to educating the public on the miracle of the human brain and how to promote brain health across the lifespan, I recommend MASTER CLASS and salute Peter on a moving contribution."
-Paul D. Nussbaum, Ph.D., author of Save Your Brain: The 5 Things You Must Do to Keep Your Brain Young and Sharp"
Legions of Baby Boomers, if they take command of their lives, can experience unprecedented satisfaction and longevity in retirement. MASTER CLASS will show them the way."
-Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., author of A New Purpose: Redefining Money, Family, Work, Retirement and Success"
MASTER CLASS is the consummate how-to guide for every baby boomer and beyond to mold their vision of positive aging into reality. Step-by-step it provides a practical and concise road map to achieving optimal personal growth and well-being as we age."
-Marc E. Agronin, M.D., author of How We Age: A Doctor's Journey into the Heart of Growing Old
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Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier
By Peter Spiers
Center StreetCopyright © 2012 Peter Spiers
All right reserved.
If You’re Just Browsing, Read This Chapter
Does this sound like you?
Are you an empty nester whose children have (finally!) grown and left home?
Do you expect to retire in the next few years? Have you recently retired or made the switch from full-to part-time work?
After years, perhaps decades, of life with one spouse or partner, are you newly unattached because you divorced or because your partner died?
Do you sometimes—and a little more frequently than you did before—misplace your car keys or momentarily forget the name of someone you know fairly well?
Do you want to get back in touch with the active, curious, adventurous person you used to be? Do you aspire to learn Italian, to play a solid blues progression on an electric guitar, to dance a tango, or to learn to paint in Provence?
Do you feel there’s something missing from your life? Do you still have dreams? But are you afraid that if you don’t do something soon, your dreams will sour into regrets?
If you answered yes to many of these questions, you’re probably a Baby Boomer like me—one of 78 million Americans, mostly now in our fifties and sixties, who have been questing and seeking all of our lives. Now that we’re facing a new stage that may well make up a third of our entire life span, we are wondering how to make the most of it. It looms ahead like uncharted territory; we feel a little lost, and there doesn’t seem to be a map in sight.
My purpose with this book is to provide you with a road map for the next phase of your life.
The territory ahead seems wild and trackless, and it’s certainly true that through all the long history of the human race few have been fortunate enough to really enjoy the years between sixty (or so) and ninety (or so). Life expectancies used to be a lot shorter and, if you were one of the few lucky enough to make it to old age, you were likely too exhausted to enjoy it much at all. But that’s not going to be true for you and me. We’re educated, healthy, and we sense that we have in the stage that’s coming a unique opportunity to learn new things, stretch ourselves in new ways, make amends and find meaning, and reach levels of wisdom, satisfaction, optimism, and peace we’ve never experienced before.
I know it’s possible, because I’ve met and talked to hundreds of the intrepid explorers and pioneers who have blazed a trail through this life stage. We Baby Boomers like to think that we’re the first generation to try… well, everything… but when it comes to demonstrating how to get the most out of the stage of life between sixty and ninety, our parents’ generation truly paved the way. (That’s the generation that first flocked to the lifelong learning programs offered by Road Scholar, the organization I work for.)
I also know that it’s possible to go another way—into stagnation, disappointment, and regret. As part of the research for this book I conducted in-depth telephone interviews, lasting forty to eighty minutes, with nearly fifty of our Road Scholar participants. Every one of them—with one poignant exception—was vibrant and had an inspiring story to tell. The lone exception came as a bit of a shock to me after a long string of upbeat conversations. It wasn’t one of my longer interviews, because he didn’t have a lot to talk about. He was getting ready to move from his home to a retirement community, and his voice was tinged with sadness and regret. I asked him what advice he had for people on the verge of retirement, and this is what he said:
It’s good to have some activity that really grabs you. I have not found that for myself as yet. I identified closely with my profession and it’s difficult when you have your sense of self tied up with your career and you’re suddenly not part of that. In some senses I stayed involved longer than I should have because the kind of job I did affected the outside world and wasn’t just to entertain myself. There’s a hole there you’ve got to fill.
His comment—which I suppose is advice in a negative sort of way—was very distressing to me. He was aware that he had made choices, or failed to make choices, that profoundly altered the course of his retirement years. He knew he had made a mistake. My most sincere wish is that the same thing doesn’t happen to you, that you don’t end up twenty or thirty (or forty!) years from now speaking in the same regretful tone, and I believe that if you read and follow the advice in this book you can avoid the same mistake.
I’m a positive person, so I interpret this one negative story as the exception that proves the rule. So enough with the negativity—I point it out merely as a cautionary tale. My focus in this book will be on the scores of other people I interviewed, and the hundreds more with whom I conducted lengthy and intensive e-mail exchanges. They are the Masters whose voices and wisdom fill these pages, and they are the living examples of what it means to live the Master Way of Life. Adele Purvis of Bedford, Massachusetts, is a more typical voice:
What’s made me most fulfilled in retirement has been staying engaged in activities which are themselves fulfilling and which keep me in a network of stimulating people with whom I can have a mutually supportive social relationship. And it helps to live in a community where those kinds of resources are available. I retired when I was fifty-two, and there are pros and cons to retiring that early. Retirement is a long journey just like other stages of human development. Successful aging is not a static thing at all. There was an article in Time magazine that said those who age most successfully are adaptable people. If people define themselves only by a badge or an accomplishment they’re going to be doomed. You can find satisfaction in any arena, but if what you’re doing is not leading you to feeling sane you better extricate yourself.
This book is their story, and their words can be your inspiration as we work together to create your road map for this life stage. If you want to learn how others have risen in this stage of life to find new levels of happiness, optimism, health, and satisfaction (and, as a by-product of this way of life, have also insulated themselves against the ravages of dementia) this book is for you.
What this book is about
We live our lives in stages, and over the centuries writers, artists, and other thinkers have attempted to define and describe these stages. One writer’s scheme laid out seven stages, a famous painter depicted four, and a twentieth-century psychologist proposed eight stages. Each of these schemes can help us to understand where we have come from and where we might be going in our lives; none of them, however, relates perfectly to the world we live in today. At a time in our social history when the entire idea of life “stages” seems fuzzy and possibly irrelevant, a new stage of life that never existed before has come into being and is starting to come into focus.
This new stage of life—and how you can make the most of it—is the subject of this book.
Stages are fuzzy now because lives are fuzzy. Unlike previous generations, we Baby Boomers have lived our lives not according to society’s expectations, but instead—the active version—according to our own internal compass or—the passive version—where the wind, or our peers, might blow us. Because of this massive generational disruption in what I call “social time,” the start and end points of this new life stage can be unique to each of us. But there are some broad markers and common characteristics to this new life stage.
For some it starts when their last child leaves home to go to college or to make his or her own way in the world. (These are not, as many parents are painfully aware, simultaneous occurrences the way they used to be.) For others it starts when they divorce or when a spouse or partner dies. For still more it starts—not at retirement, because that’s quickly becoming an outmoded concept and even a dirty word—when they transition from full-to part-time work or when, though they’re still working, work has ceased to be the central focus of their lives. This stage can start at forty-five, fifty-five, or sixty-five years of age.
Another sign that this stage is upon us is when we find ourselves asking a new set of questions: Can I get back into anything like the physical shape I was in thirty years ago? Is it too late to start doing again the things I loved to do before “real life” and its responsibilities got in the way? How can I be happy and fulfilled without children to nurture or a career to manage? How can I give back to society or otherwise create a legacy for myself? Do I have the courage to try the things I’ve always dreamed of doing but always found reasons to put off until an undefined “later”?
(A more basic question we might be asking ourselves is: Where the heck did I put my car keys? This may sound like the odd man out in this series of questions, but it’s not. As you’ll learn in this book, one of the benefits of the Master Way of Life is that it keeps your brain in tip-top shape.)
The most important thing I can tell you about this stage of life is that it’s up to you how it plays out.
Some life stages are the same for almost everyone—in the first few years of life almost every human who survives infancy goes through an amazing stage of learning and growth during which they learn to talk and walk and laugh and cry. Learning to do these things isn’t something you can really decide not to do.
This new stage of life can go either way. You can do nothing and risk sinking into depression and illness, or you can take charge of it and experience happiness, optimism, health, and the sense that you’re in control of your life. I’m not claiming you can arrest the aging process. That’s inevitable for all of us. But I believe the experience and example of the Masters demonstrates that you can shape the contours of this life stage and experience a second blossoming of your dreams and your potential.
—ROCHELLE KRUGER, WESTWOOD, MASS.
“It bothers me that people are afraid to retire because they don’t know what they’ll do with their time. There’s so much to do. I feel badly for people who don’t get up and do things. I love hearing what people are doing with their time. They’re so much more interesting than people who are sitting around waiting for something to happen. I’m so busy I need to retire from my retirement.”
This book will help you make the right choices and take the right path. Your guides will be the hundreds of people I’ve interviewed who are navigating this life stage successfully. They are Masters, and they will teach you how they have achieved mastery in this life stage, and how you can, too. Master and mastery are key words in this book, and the series of steps I want you to take is a self-directed program at the end of which you will “graduate” from the Master Class. The good news is that as you start out on this road, you’re likely to find that you’ve amassed an enormous number of credit hours in the activities you already do in your daily life. All you’re likely to need is to round out your distribution requirements and give yourself a self-directed final exam!
The Masters who will teach this class are hale, hearty, and altogether amazing people in their fifties, sixties, seventies, and even eighties, and I bet you know some of them.
The widow down the street with the gorgeous perennial garden who waves to you as she runs out to her tennis game… is a Master.
The divorced man who lives on the corner who sits on the board of your town’s food bank and who ran a 5K last Saturday… is a Master.
The empty-nest couple across the street who are constantly ushering visitors into their home and who leave Sunday for a cooking course in Italy… are Masters.
The Masters whose life lessons make up a big part of this book have something else in common, too. All of these people are participants in Road Scholar’s lifelong learning and educational travel programs, and they embody a particular Road Scholar ethos and spirit. Think about it this way: a “road” can be an asphalt surface cars move along, but it’s far more than that. The word road also evokes a journey or even a “way” that begins to have highly meaningful, even spiritual connotations. (Think of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.) Scholar is all about learning, and it communicates experience, maturity, wisdom, and self-confidence in ways the word student does not. A scholar clearly is still a student, but a student well past the beginning stages of learning. Put them together—Road Scholar—and you should have a picture in mind of a person who has learned from books and from experience, who is comfortable in his or her own skin, and who has achieved an enviable level of mastery in his or her field. I’m reminded of a line by Robert Frost: “It takes all kinds of in and outdoor schooling/To get adapted to my kind of fooling.”
—KATHY ANTONSON, GIG HARBOR, WASH.
“On retirement: Take advantage of it. It’s not going to come around again. Get out and see the world. It gives you a different perspective on daily living.”
What else do all of these people have in common? It’s not who their parents were, nor is it where they went to college or what they think. It’s what they do in their daily lives that sets them apart from their peers. In a nutshell, they’ve filled their lives with socializing, moving, thinking, and creating—the four key dimensions of the Master Way of Life. Moreover, they gravitate to thirty-one specific activities that combine two, three, and sometimes even four of these dimensions, activities such as gardening (moving, thinking, and creating), participating in book clubs (socializing and thinking), or volunteering (some volunteer opportunities, like building with Habitat for Humanity, combine all four dimensions).
They’re busy with activities like these that fill their lives, but it’s not their busyness that makes them positive and content. It’s the particular combination of all the things they do—interacting with and helping other people in pleasurable and purposeful ways; getting their bodies moving in ways that keep their hearts strong, keep their muscles toned, and—this is important—keep oxygen flowing to their brains; exercising those brains with complex games and projects; and creating new things ranging from family trees and memoirs to furniture and oil paintings. Socializing, moving, creating, and thinking are the distribution requirements, if you will, of the Master Class program.
Why are these four dimensions so important? They’re important because, together, they are the key elements of a holistic way of life that will bring you happiness, optimism, and physical and cognitive health.
I know this to be true because I’ve closely observed, through surveys and interviews, hundreds of people aged fifty to eighty, and I’ve seen these four behavioral dimensions appear again and again in the happiest, most optimistic, and mentally sharpest people. I also know it to be true because I’ve immersed myself in the academic literature exploring the connection between these behaviors, a positive psychological outlook, and brain health, and I’m satisfied that the experts, even though they typically express their conclusions in tentative and cautious terms as all good scientists should, are for the most part convinced of the connection.
This is a good spot to make a special comment on a likely by-product of the Master Way of Life—brain health. Baby Boomers are more than a little anxious and obsessed about becoming more forgetful and what that might portend, and where you find anxiety and obsession you’re sure to find snake oil salesmen offering a quick fix. That’s why we’ve seen such a proliferation of brain health books, pills, and computer programs crop up over the last few years, many claiming to prevent dementia and promising to keep your brain “young.” Often the science behind these remedies is suspect at worst, or limited at best. Sure, a computer-based program may help you remember a list of things you have to do, but will it really “transfer”—that’s the word psychologists use—to other brain functions? We should be highly suspicious of anything socially isolating and physically passive that promises brain health.
If you’re a Baby Boomer you’ve seen the same phenomenon in the areas of fitness and dieting. We’re pummeled by the media and advertisers with quick-fix solutions; being only human, we try them and inevitably experience disappointment, but being an intelligent species, we eventually learn that in the areas of exercise and dieting only holistic, balanced approaches really work. The same is true if what you’re after is a rich, fulfilled retirement and healthy cognitive functioning. Gimmicks won’t work; only a holistic way of life blending socializing, moving, thinking, and creating will lead to the happiness, optimism, and physical and cognitive health we all want in this life stage.
Now you have a taste of what this book is about; here’s how the book will proceed from this point on.
In Part One, I’ll make the case for the Master Way of Life.
I’ll briefly explain how changes in society led over the last several decades to the development of a new life stage unknown in human history until now, and tell you about the biggest hopes and fears Baby Boomers have as they begin entering this stage by the millions.
I’ll tell you about the research project I led several years ago that revealed a golden lode of information about the pioneers of the Master Way of Life, how I reverse-engineered that way of life to turn it into a program anyone can adapt to his or her own life, and how I interviewed hundreds of people practicing the Master Way of Life so that their stories can inspire you to live life as fully and happily as they do.
I’ll walk you through the research psychologists have conducted providing rigorous evidence that socializing, moving, thinking, and creating are keys to fulfillment in the retirement years, and how they’re also essential for cognitive health. Moreover, I’ll tell you about experiments supporting the notion that activities blending more than one of these four key dimensions have a compounded beneficial effect.
I’ll tell you about the snake oil that’s being peddled out there promising to save you from dementia and Alzheimer’s, and give you some important tools for telling the difference between what might really be valuable to you and what’s just out there to get you to open your wallet.
In Part Two, I’ll show you how to create your own self-guided Master Class. The process is an incremental one—I’m not asking you to take on an enormous course load in your first week. (The fact is, most of you will find that you’re well into the Master Class curriculum already, that you’re close to fulfilling your requirements in some of the four dimensions, and that with a few straightforward tweaks to your daily and weekly routines, you can fill out your program of study and complete the distribution requirements for your Master Class “graduation.”) I’ll show you how to inventory the activities you’re already doing, but also how to rekindle dormant and important parts of your life experience, and even how to reconnect with your dreams for yourself. You’ll see in Part Two that mastery is within the reach of all of us.
I’ll also give you the tools—an easy-to-maintain logbook approach—for tracking your daily activities and your progress toward completing your Master Class.
As I said earlier, thirty-one specific activities appeared again and again in the lives of the Masters I interviewed. These activities are the tastiest, most nutritious “super foods”—the blueberries, broccoli, and dark chocolate, if you will—of the Master Way of Life. In Part Two I’ll take you through each of these activities, tell you why it’s so good for you, let the Masters themselves tell you why they love doing it, and give you some resources and hints to get you started. At the end of this voyage of discovery through the world our Masters inhabit, I’m confident that you’ll want to try some of these activities yourself. The Master Class is all about trying new things and stepping off familiar and comfortable paths.
Okay, we’re almost ready to go. But before we start out together on the road to mastery, I should introduce myself.
I work at Road Scholar, a Boston-based not-for-profit organization dedicated to lifelong learning and educational travel. (We were founded in 1975 as Elderhostel, and changed our brand name a couple of years ago when we realized that for Baby Boomers the word elder is no longer acceptable.) Our Road Scholar learning programs operate in fifty states and 150 countries around the world, and much of the research that led to the discovery of the Master Way of Life was conducted among participants in these programs. We have long known intuitively that our participants are uniquely hale, hearty, and happy, and that they are pioneers of a new approach to getting the most out of retirement; our research provided solid evidence supporting our long-held hunch and gave us what we needed to confidently share it with the world.
This book is about helping you become a Master. It is not a scientific treatise or a book of medical advice, since I am not a scientist or doctor. However, I am an intelligent and open-minded person who has been studying the Master Way of Life for ten years. I’m capable of reading and digesting the scientific literature where it’s necessary and helpful, but you should think of me primarily as a reporter. Or, better yet, as an explorer—Marco Polo, perhaps—who has journeyed into what the future might have in store for you, seen wonderful things, interviewed the people who live there, and come back to tell you about it. While I do from time to time interject my own experiences and opinions, I try for the most part to let the Masters speak for themselves.
I’m also a Baby Boomer. The Baby Boom began in 1946 and ended in 1964; I was born in 1954, which puts me right in the thick of it. Like many Baby Boomers, I haven’t lived my life according to a set of well-worn societal expectations. I’ve been divorced and remarried. I’ve changed careers. Though I’ll be fifty-seven when this book hits the bookstores, my two sons will barely be teenagers. (That makes me one of the older—but not the oldest!—dads on the sports field sidelines.)
Though I work full-time, have kids whom I still need to put through college, and have spent much of the last few years writing this book, I’m also interested in and beginning to explore some of the activities I discuss in this book. Among other things, I exercise avidly (I run, lift weights, and take two Pilates classes each week); I love games and puzzles of all kinds (I’m addicted to the New York Times crossword puzzle); I’ve done volunteer work with youth organizations, for my town’s committee on aging, and for my college’s alumni magazine; and I’m teaching myself how to play the blues guitar. I like to think I’m laying the foundation now for the life I hope to lead when I retire. So, with your indulgence and where it’s appropriate and helpful, I will from time to time write about my own life and experiences.
So… let’s get started on the road to understanding the value of the Master Way of Life and creating your own Master Class.
My Journey to the Master Way of Life
The new “Seventh Age” of life
In his play As You Like It, William Shakespeare famously described Seven Ages of Man: the infant, the schoolboy, the lover, the soldier, the justice, the withered and declining old man, and, last, the man so old he is once again a child—“sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
That speech—with its famous opening line “All the world’s a stage”—has been memorized by countless generations of high school students in the four hundred years since it was written. It has struck a chord with us for all of those centuries not only for the beauty of its language, but because the seven life stages counted by Shakespeare seem so true—we recognize them in our own lives and in the lives of others. Shakespeare’s system is psychologically sophisticated, and his “justice” stage—“full of wise saws, and modern instances”—seems closest to the stage of life this book deals with. The justice straddles experience and youth: he has achieved wisdom (“wise saws”), but he’s still hip to what’s new (“modern instances”).
A famous quartet of paintings—The Voyage of Life—by the American artist Thomas Cole has the same psychological ring of truth. These paintings, housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., have within the larger museum a small gallery all to themselves, where they hang on four facing walls. (See all four paintings here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Voyage_of_Life.) Childhood, the first painting in the series, depicts a calm stream emerging from a cave into a floral, sunlit landscape. A young and carefree child sits in the boat and happily greets the scenery, blissfully unaware of the angel standing behind him with a hand firmly on the tiller. In the second painting, Youth, the angel has stepped ashore and the young man, his own hand on the tiller and his eyes on a shimmering castle in the air, steers confidently down the stream in pursuit of his dreams, heedless to the roaring rapids downriver, just around the bend. In Manhood, the third painting, the tiller has broken, the out-of-control boat rushes down the river, the man clasps his hands together in pleading prayer, and the only consolation in the scene is the sight of a more placid ocean ahead. In the final painting, Old Age, the boat and the now white-bearded old man have reached the ocean. The angel has returned, beckoning the man toward a brilliant patch in the otherwise gray heavens. Cole’s life-stage progression is clearly less nuanced than Shakespeare’s, but it’s still very powerful and moving. His portrayal in Manhood of life rushing headlong and out of one’s control seems especially chilling and accurate.
In more modern and scientific times, perhaps the stages proposed by the famous psychologist Erik Erikson are best known. (Among other things, Erikson is famous for coining the phrase identity crisis.) Erikson’s first five stages take us through adolescence and our first twenty or so years, leaving only three stages—young adulthood, middle adulthood, and old age—for the remainder of our years. While Shakespeare’s justice knows both the wise saws and the modern instances, Erikson’s middle adult faces a conflict between generativity and stagnation. We all know what stagnation is, but generativity is a lesser-known term and needs some explanation. Erikson describes a well-adjusted, psychologically healthy middle adult as optimistic, with that sense of optimism expressed through efforts to pass on what he or she has learned in life to the next generation (hence “generativity”).
Will… Thomas… Erik… Listen up! No longer do any of your age and stage schemes fully capture the arc of life for the typical person in the educated, industrialized world. (And arcs they are, with everything that word suggests about rising through the early part of one’s life, reaching a peak, and then sliding into inevitable decline.) Now there’s a new stage that gives each of us an unprecedented opportunity—in our fifties, sixties, seventies, and even eighties—to climb to new heights of achievement, satisfaction, and mastery. Unlike earlier stages in life, however, getting the most out of this life stage is entirely up to you.
This stage is still new and—until now—has lacked a clear definition and an accurate label. During this stage millions of Baby Boomers will have their peak experiences—and others will miss out entirely because they’re trapped in old ways of thinking about life development, and won’t bother to embrace it for all it’s worth. It’s a stage of life that offers an unparalleled opportunity for achievement, happiness, satisfaction, and the feeling that you’re truly the master of your own life, and it’s entirely optional. In other words, it’s up to you whether this stage will be part of your life at all.
So, what exactly is this new life stage?
Let’s start by talking about when it starts. Unlike many other life stages, this one is only partly about how many candles were on your last birthday cake. It used to be that more of our behavior was regulated by what society expected of us—you went to college for four years, got a job, got married, and so on. This conventional approach to “social time” has changed in recent decades. Isn’t it we Baby Boomers who invented the idea of college on the six-year plan with breathing room built in—often at our parents’ expense—to “discover ourselves”? (Would our Depression-era parents, if they were lucky enough to go to college in the first place, ever have dreamed of such a thing? Absolutely not. For them, to dawdle this way would have been considered a waste of precious resources, presumptuous, and possibly even an insult to their parents.) And isn’t it we Baby Boomers who in record numbers waited until our thirties or even forties to have children?
Because of this fracturing of social expectations about when things are supposed to happen in life, it’s hard to assign a starting age for this new stage.
For some it starts when their children cease to be dependents, either because they’ve graduated from college or left home for the last time.
For others it starts at retirement, or when they transition into part-time work.
For others still, it starts at the end of a relationship, typically a divorce or the death of a spouse.
For everyone, no matter what the specific trigger, this stage starts when something causes you to look up and see that you’ve been running at full speed, often out of an admirable obligation to care for someone else, and to realize that it’s time to take care of yourself for a change. Typically at a moment of important transition, a small voice in the backs of our heads plants new dreams or reawakens old ones.
(I said that this life stage isn’t defined by a particular chronological age, but the attentive reader will observe that I’ve made reference to Baby Boomers a couple of times. That’s because, though this stage can commence at many different ages, the transitions I mentioned—the empty nest, retirement, divorce—are ones that typically occur to people between the ages of fifty and sixty-five, and that’s exactly where most Baby Boomers are right now. Because that’s where the action heats up for this life stage, that’s where the attention of this book will be focused.)
Now that we know when this stage starts, the next question is: how long does it last?
That depends a lot on you, because the more you make of it, the longer it can last. I’ve met many, many extraordinary people—true Masters—who are still going strong in this life stage in their eighties and even nineties. This life stage can last thirty or even forty years, making it for some extraordinary people the longest, happiest, and most enriching and satisfying period in their lives.
Why has this new life stage emerged only now?
To understand how to get the most out of the Master life stage, it’s important to look back at how life patterns and demographics have changed over the last one hundred or more years. It’s also important to understand that the very idea of retirement is a relatively new one.
The Master life stage has long been available for the elite few in society with both financial means and good health. In much of the developed world, however, the coming of the industrial age actually degraded the aging experience for most people. In 1908, one economist wrote that “the old man today, slow, hesitating, frequently half-blind and deaf, is sadly misplaced amidst the death dealing machinery of a modern factory.” One hundred years ago, workers retiring from mine, farm, or factory typically faced a few years of sickly dependence on family, followed by an early death.
Through the twentieth century the phenomenon of retirement as we know it today slowly took shape. Advances in wealth, health, and changes in the nature of work all played their part.
The Great Depression in the United States hit older people especially hard and led to the Social Security Act of 1935. Pensions expanded rapidly in America after World War II when unions—wielding a stick—demanded them, and the government—holding out the carrot of tax benefits—encouraged private employers to offer them. Retired people became a political interest group, and one of the high points of their political influence came in 1972, when Social Security benefits rose by 20 percent and future benefits became tied automatically to increases in the cost of living rather than depending on an act of Congress.
Health in old age also improved dramatically throughout the twentieth century as better sanitation and breakthroughs in medical technology—such as the discovery and wide distribution of antibiotics—led to increases in life expectancy. Baby Boomers carried awareness of the importance of physical fitness even further, fueling movements from running and aerobics to yoga and tae bo.
Changes in the kind of work that people do also profoundly affected retirement. The industrial revolution pulled people from farms to factories—a change that wasn’t much of an improvement for most people as they left the backbreaking, dangerous, tedious world of agriculture for the backbreaking, dangerous, tedious world of the mine and the factory floor.
The big change came later, as increases in productivity and the growth of large organizations—corporations, government bureaucracies, research universities, big public school systems—pulled people from factory floors to offices. Of course office work has been the subject of cultural critique and ridicule, from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and the television shows The Office and Mad Men to movies like Boiler Room and Office Space. But think about it. Office work has two great advantages over farm and factory work; first, when you retire, you’re probably not a worn-out physical wreck (isn’t exercise more or less a twentieth-century invention to offset sedentary office life?); second, a lot of office work is mentally stimulating and, well, actually kind of interesting. In offices, labs, and meeting rooms you spend a lot of the day using the English and math skills you learned in school, solving problems, and interacting with other people.
The cumulative effect of all of these factors added up to a major change in the nature of retirement, and these changes reached the point of real societal significance in the 1970s. For the first time in history, millions of college-educated people from a huge generation (commonly called “the Greatest Generation” or “the GI Generation”) were reaching the shores of retirement with healthy minds and bodies, and money in their pockets. All of a sudden, lots of people could look forward to ten, twenty, even thirty more years of activity, enrichment, and enjoyment. A new stage of life was born.
When I say “lots of people” I mean it. In 1970 there were about 20 million people in the United States over the age of sixty-five. By 2010 that number had doubled to 40 million. By 2050 it will double again to 80 million!
It’s a stage of life where people face a choice that they too often make without really considering the alternatives or the consequences. Because this stage of life is too new to have a set of developed norms and expectations around it, people often aren’t even aware that there’s an important choice to be made. In one direction, where you will go if you do nothing, lies loneliness and ill health. In the other direction lie enrichment, vitality, and optimism. This is the direction of the Master Way of Life.
Elderhostel, Road Scholar, and the new Seventh Age
In 1975—exactly at the right moment—the not-for-profit organization I work for, Elderhostel, was founded. I don’t know whether our founders were consciously aware of all of the psychological, social, and demographic points I’ve just described, or whether they simply had an intuition that enormous changes were afoot. Either way, their timing couldn’t have been better. Just at the moment when millions of Americans were retiring and looking for something other than golf and bingo to fill their days—basically, looking to define what it would mean to live this new life stage to its fullest—along came an organization with a mission to bring learning opportunities in a social setting to people whom society had previously written off as unable to learn new things. Society was still stuck in Shakespeare’s “seven ages” model; Elderhostel’s founders somehow sensed that a new life stage had emerged.
Why is this important? Because, since the year of its founding, Elderhostel has grown to become the preeminent lifelong learning and educational travel institution in the world. More than five million people have enrolled in its Road Scholar programs, and those of us lucky enough to work here have had a ringside seat to one of the most glorious flowerings of humanity ever seen in human history. This sounds like hyperbole, but I’m not exaggerating. This is truly a Second Renaissance. In the first Renaissance a few thousand artists, writers, noblemen, and merchants benefited while peasants in the millions continued in ignorance to hoe their rocky fields. The new Renaissance, though less heralded, has impacted the lives of millions of regular people, and it’s only just beginning.
Road Scholar programs are on every conceivable subject, from performing arts and cooking, to deep dives into other cultures and immersion into American landscapes and history. Our programs operate in every state in the United States and in 150 countries around the world. From this wide platform, we’ve been able to observe some of the most extraordinary hale, hearty, and happy individuals you’ll ever see find camaraderie, new knowledge, enrichment, transformation, and, on occasion, even love at our programs. We got the idea for this book from the several years of research we conducted to better understand their way of life when they’re not participating in our programs.
Discovering the Master Way of Life
Let me tell you about that research. We at Road Scholar have known for decades that our participants are a breed apart, so in 2006 we decided to take a more formal, research-driven approach to understanding the connection between lives rich in activity and measures of psychological well-being that might be indicative of success in this new life stage.
I ran this research project. To establish a society-wide baseline, we started by surveying a representative sample of all Americans aged fifty-five and over. We asked them scores of questions, from self-assessments of physical health and ratings of psychological well-being, to detailed inquiries about the range of activities they fill their days with. We then performed some very sophisticated data analysis (“latent factor analysis,” for you statistics wonks) to cluster the panelists into five groups with distinctive profiles. We pored over the profiles, brainstorming labels that would capture what made each group different from the others.
Two of these groups stood out as extraordinarily engaged, enriched, and happy. We named these groups the “Focused Mental Achievers” and the “Contented Recreational Learners.”
Focused Mental Achievers, who made up 11 percent of the general population, are culturally active: visiting museums, playing musical instruments, writing, and watching PBS television programs. They’re also physically active: dancing, taking exercise classes, lifting weights, and running. They volunteer; 26 percent of them play a leading role with a charitable or volunteer organization, and 20 percent volunteer their time to teach, either as a coach, a mentor, a literacy instructor, or in some other capacity. They travel; more than half hold a valid passport, and almost 70 percent have traveled overnight in the past five years to attend a class or seminar. But most important, they’re content and satisfied, scoring 117 on a standard optimism scale (100 is average), and 115 on a life-satisfaction scale.
Contented Recreational Learners are only slightly less active than Focused Mental Achievers. While 14 percent of Focused Mental Achievers, for example, play a musical instrument, only 5.6 percent of Contented Recreational Learners make the same claim. Likewise, only about 40 percent of them hold a valid passport. I like to think of the goal-oriented Focused Mental Achievers as sharks and their more playful Contented Recreational Learner counterparts as dolphins. Not surprisingly, their mean score on the “It’s easy for me to relax” scale was a dolphin-like 3.14, while for the Focused Mental Achievers it scored a more shark-like 2.96.
Together, these two groups represented not quite 50 percent of the over-55 population.
Our next step was to conduct exactly the same survey with Road Scholar participants, and we were blown away when we found that 85 percent of the Road Scholar panelists fell into one of these two elite groups; 50 percent of them were Focused Mental Achievers and 35 percent were Contented Recreational Learners. This was the moment when we knew we were onto something—Road Scholar participants were clearly people who were finding great satisfaction in life, and we were one step closer to decoding their DNA. The picture of a sort of person who had become a Master of this life stage was beginning to come into focus.
We knew we needed to go a little deeper; we could see the elegant helix of the DNA, but we needed to understand what was going on at the chromosome level. So we wrote back to every Road Scholar panelist who fell into either the Focused Mental Achievers or the Contented Recreational Learners group, and asked them to write an essay for us telling us how they spent their days, with particular focus on the range of activities they were involved in.
We received a deluge of enthusiastic responses to this request, and I waded through more than four hundred short essays, carefully coding the activities our participants said they did, from playing in bands and bicycling to gardening and learning a foreign language. That was when our participants provided us with another breakthrough in our research. This activity coding revealed an interesting pattern—thirty-one specific activities appeared again and again on our participants’ lists. (See Figure 1 for a list of these activities.) I looked at the activities on this list and thought long and hard about what they might have in common. I saw that each activity on this list requires two or more of the following “behaviors”: socializing, moving, creating, and thinking. I realized that the key to happiness and fulfillment in this life stage—to becoming a Master—is filling your life with activities that provide a balance of these four dimensions.
Finally, I asked our essayists to write to us once more, this time sharing with us why they had chosen to get involved in those thirty-one activities, what they liked about doing them, and what they got out of them. Once again, I received thoughtful and often inspirational communications on the value of these activities. Their words, and the words of another fifty Masters I interviewed at greater length over the telephone, will inspire you, too.
This book, and the program for healthy aging it contains, is built on the foundation of the experiences of these remarkable people. You probably know people who would be equally suitable models for this way of life. Perhaps you have relatives or neighbors who have found the enrichment, purpose, and happiness that this book will help you find. You could ask them to explain how they do it, but we have done the work for you. We’ve reverse-engineered this way of life and put it back together in a systematic way that anyone can put into practice. Let’s hear from a few of our Masters about their passionate interests:
Music and living in the moment: “I started to play the flute as a gift to myself when I was sixty-five years old. Playing the flute enables me to be entirely focused ‘in the moment.’ While I am practicing, all other thoughts are blocked and I am fully concentrated on the sound I am creating and the fingering. I am taking a vacation from my other problems and the rest of my life.”
Exploring your family’s past with genealogy: “As an eldest child and eldest grandchild I inherited some written records from both my mother’s and my father’s lines. I interviewed one grandmother when I was about twenty-one and wrote down her answers. My father sent me the ‘family archives’ (portraits and documents) when my parents moved to Florida in 1974. I started to write in earnest about 2000, when my husband gifted me with a genealogy computer program to get me interested in learning to use a computer. Now I have over ten thousand names in my file and am hooked on not just the facts, but the story-writing. I reconnect with cousins I haven’t seen since I was a teen. I meet new relatives online and in person, even fifth cousins, whom I never knew I had, and we enjoy exchanging pictures and stories. I travel with a purpose. I have a place to record all of the stories I have to tell. I have computer skills I never would have had without a reason to develop them. I have to learn more about history. There’s nothing like knowing that you had an ancestor in the Battle of Saratoga to make you perk up and listen to the history of that battle. Or of knowing that you had a great-grandfather who went to California from Italy in 1862 to make you learn more about Italian labor camps after the gold rush. I’ve even had to learn Italian to do research in Italy.”
Holding an audience’s interest as a museum docent: “My wife had been a docent at the Michigan State Historical Museum for sixteen or so years and encouraged me to try it. For the tour groups at the museum of young people, the challenge is to hold the group together and capture and hold their interest with things they will remember. For adults or family groups, the opportunity is to take them deep within the material and open ideas that they wouldn’t have considered.”
Bridge as a way to make new friends in a new community: “I like party bridge. I’ve taken lessons in duplicate but that’s not for me. I do it for the social activity and not to win. I’m pretty good so I often win, but I do it to chat with the other players. After our kids had grown we moved from Vancouver, Canada, to a town where most people had made their friends through their kids’ sports teams. I got into bridge lessons to meet other people. That’s how we built our social life. I play about four times a month; I’m in three different groups and I’m usually asked to sub in another. It keeps your brain sharp. I like the thinking, and I’ve developed good friendships.”
A community of learners at a Lifelong Learning Institute: “I’ve been involved with the University of Dayton Lifelong Learning Institute since it was founded eleven years ago; I have plenty of other things to do, but these classes are too good to miss. When I retired, I wanted to pursue some academic interests that I had neglected during undergraduate days. This program looked like it was made to order for my interests. I, and most of the people I have conversed with at LLI sessions, get new knowledge in a number of areas of interest provided by University of Dayton faculty, retired faculty, and community-based experts, in an atmosphere much like Road Scholar—no pressure, great social environment, interesting people both at the front of the classroom and in the desk next to one, and memorable experiences. It also makes us feel alive and active, and that we are working our brains and holding off Alzheimer’s.”
Connecting to the past with gardening: “Gardening is a great lifelong learning activity. Among the things I’ve learned: some Latin because that’s the language of gardening, how to distinguish hardy plants from tender (learned that the hard way), how to get rid of slugs painlessly (I pick them up in the morning and take them to a park I know). It is lovely to come to this physical and spiritual, scientific, and creative body of knowledge at this point in my life. It turns out that creating a beautiful environment can be learned. When I talk over the back fence with my (gardening) neighbors or give someone a bouquet of flowers from my garden, I know just how my grandmother and mother felt when they did the same thing.”
Making a deep dive into international travel: “In 1995, and again in 2004, I traveled with the Hershey (Pennsylvania) Community Chorus to sing in Wales and Ireland. In Wales we were hosted by a male choir. When you visit the valleys in the east it’s like going back in time; people aren’t attached to their computers and mobile phones. I started renting an apartment in the city of Pontypool for six months a year, three months in the spring and three in the fall. Now I have lots of friends there and even volunteer at a shop where the proceeds support cancer research. The people are so friendly and they take you in.”
In these examples you can see for yourself the pattern of socializing, thinking, moving, and creating in the activities the Masters are drawn to. All well and good, you may be thinking. This all makes intuitive sense, but where’s the proof that these four behaviors have a real link to a life where I’ll feel rewarded, engaged, enriched, and happy? To me—perhaps because I’ve met, talked to, or exchanged e-mails with hundreds of people who are living this life—it all adds up perfectly. But I certainly owe it to you to lay out the evidence from the research of psychologists and, in some cases, cognitive scientists that supports the case for these four dimensions. But before I do that, it’s time to address the Elephant in the Room.
The Elephant in the Room
The Elephant in the Room is brain health, and it seems that everyone is writing and talking about it these days. Every time you open a newspaper or magazine, or go on the Internet, you find a new brain-health product or the summary of a scientific journal article reporting another miraculous way to keep your brain young and fit. Diet, exercise, other specific activities—all are recommended as the one thing you must do to keep your mind from turning to mush as your birthdays ratchet on. Some of these suggestions sound fairly reasonable; others are sure to raise the eyebrows of even the least skeptical among us. Here are six brain health “ideas” I’ve come across over the last several years—I’ll leave it to you to decide which sound reasonable and which leave you rolling your eyes.
Jellyfish Protein: In October 2008, a Wisconsin-based company called Quincy Bioscience announced the release of a dietary supplement called Prevagen, made out of a jellyfish protein called apoaequorin, citing the company’s own research as evidence that the supplement improves memory.
BrainWaveVibration: In October 2008, a new website was launched promoting an exercise program called BrainWaveVibration. The exercise involves “moving the head and body to one’s own natural rhythm” and “encompasses a comprehensive and practical philosophy of life centered on the brain’s health.”
Turmeric: An article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution in October 2009 reviewed the purported health benefits in a variety of common spices. “Curcumin, the bright yellow pigment in turmeric,” the article said, “helps fight heart disease and might boost brain health.”
Surfing the Internet: “Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles,” wrote health writer Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times, “have shown that searching the Internet triggers key centers in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning. The findings,… published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, suggest that searching the Web helps to stimulate and may even improve brain function.”
Grape Seed Extract: NaturalNews.com described a study finding that rats vulnerable to the brain plaques that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease were given a new grape seed extract called MegaNatural A-Z and experienced less cognitive decline. The study was conducted by researchers from—are you ready?—the Alzheimer’s Association, Constellation Brands’ polyphenolics division, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Japan Human Science Foundation, Mount Sinai Hospital, the National Institutes of Health, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and the University of California–Los Angeles (phew!), and was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
I’m not qualified to judge the value of these products or recommendations or the validity of their boasts, but as a longtime observer of claims made in our culture about diet and exercise, my gut feeling—and you may feel the same way—is that something seems to be missing. I’ll come back to this idea—and to the comparison to diet and exercise—but for now the point is this: intuitively, deep down inside, doesn’t it feel like a holistic approach of some kind—one that blends all of the best thought and experience into a complete way of life—would make more sense?
All of this media coverage, and all of these supposed cures makes you wonder if there are really more scientific discoveries in brain health than ever before, or whether the media, sensing that its readers or viewers have more interest in the topic now than in previous years, are simply giving it more coverage. The truth is that it’s probably a bit of both. But why the upsurge in interest?
The answer is fear of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. And it’s we Baby Boomers who are afraid. Research released in 2006 by the MetLife Foundation showed that Americans fifty-five and older feared Alzheimer’s disease more than any other illness, including cancer. The Baby Boom generation—my generation—is once again behind a major national obsession—this time, brain health—as it has been repeatedly since its first members were born in 1946. Our mothers all read Dr. Spock, we reached school age and the nation responded with the school-building spree of the 1950s and 1960s, we supplied foot soldiers for the counterculture, we took up running, we graduated from college and became yuppies—the list goes on and on. Now Baby Boomers—perhaps a bit begrudgingly—are slouching toward late middle age and the R word (retirement). The oldest, leading-edge Baby Boomers are now at least sixty-six years old; some even began collecting Social Security benefits on January 1, 2008.
But why is brain health more of an obsession for this generation than previous ones? I offer two reasons. First, this generation is reaching the age of retirement in the best physical health of any in history. That means that physical ailments have become less of an obsession, and it also means that people are living longer and are more likely to experience some sort of cognitive impairment. Second, this generation—more than any before it—is made up of knowledge workers—that is, workers who earn their living by manipulating ideas and symbols, rather than by making things. They’ve invested in their brains, they’ve made a living from their brains, and they value them highly.
So there you have it—a generation on the cusp of a new phase in life, obsessed with brain health. No wonder there are so many gimmicks, including many designed more to enrich their inventors than truly exercise the brain. The list I gave you before focused on foods or activities that research has shown may promote brain health; the next list are actual books or computer-based programs that claim to describe or provide a brain workout that may help you avoid cognitive decline. See if you can detect the thread that runs through this list.
“Aerobics of the Mind”
“The 10-Minute Brain Workout”
If you noted that all five of these programs exploit an analogy with physical exercise, you see the same thing that I see. It should come as no surprise that entrepreneurs or authors seeking to tap into the brain-health obsession should employ this language when targeting Baby Boomers. After all, deep currents in the Boomer generation drove wave after wave of exercise fads or booms, from jogging and aerobics to spinning and Pilates. It’s a language we understand.
But there’s something more insidious going on with some of this language, and I don’t think it’s going to fool many of us. How many sales pitches have you heard in your life—especially in the areas of exercise and dieting—that promise miraculous results in ten minutes a day? (Perhaps you’ve fallen for one or two of them.) The cheesiest of all are the cable TV ads you see, at odd hours when advertising rates are low, for abs exercisers that promise six-pack abs in six minutes a day for six weeks, all for six E-Z payments of $6.66. How gullible do they think we are?!
Now the same sales techniques are being employed in the area of brain health.
But there is an alternative, and that alternative is a big part of what this book is all about. Running parallel to these disconnected bits of advice, parallel to the ultimately passive, mind-numbing, technology-based programs and parallel to the snake-oil, quick-fix gimmicks, is another current providing a more holistic approach. While I don’t think practitioners of this approach recognize it as a movement, I think it’s a powerful trend that’s on the verge of erupting as the next great Baby Boomer obsession—and a healthy obsession at that. It’s happening in disconnected, isolated ways and places, but each piece is part of a larger pattern; its trend makers are heirs to a legacy created by the pioneers I nominate later for the Master Class Dean’s List. Sometimes what’s happening in this area is explicitly linked to brain health, sometimes not. Here are some of these pieces, and some of the people who are living this more holistic approach:
St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota, presented an evening course called “Conversations about Music and Jazz” through its Center for Senior Education—but, as a reporter noted, “no one asks to see your birth certificate.” The eight-week course cost sixty dollars. In each session the instructor interviewed “an area jazz artist about his or her career and specific issues such as composing, bebop, swing, etc., followed by some live music.”
As a result of a recently created partnership between the University of Southern California (USC) libraries and the USC Alumni Association, USC alumni will have online access to a wide range of library resources after they graduate. Catherine Quinlan, the library system’s dean, said that alumni groups consistently told her “how much they miss access to the libraries’ collections and services after they graduate. We’re happy to be able to provide this resource to support our alumni in their post-graduation endeavors.”
The Lifelong Learning Institute in Enid, Oklahoma, offered four courses in the fall of 2008 for adults fifty-five and over. Topics included a historical look at the British Navy, a weekly review of current events, “Arts in World Religions,” and “History and Development in China.” One past participant in the courses said they “helped me keep my mind stimulated and make friends. I have learned things I probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise.”
In an interview on the website SharpBrains.com, Dr. Arthur Kramer, professor in the University of Illinois Department of Psychology and director of the university’s Biomedical Imaging Center, proposed combining physical and mental stimulation along with social interactions as a strategy for delaying Alzheimer’s disease and boosting brain health. “Why not take a good walk with friends to discuss a book?” Professor Kramer said.
A blog called Cycling for Boomers makes the connection between bicycling and brain health. In an interview with clinical neuroscientist Dr. Paul Nussbaum, blogger Grace Liechtenstein learned that the physical, spiritual, and social benefits of (group) bicycling add up to an ideal brain exercise. “Increased blood flow to the brain, reduced stress, and socialization,” said Dr. Nussbaum, “fuel the brain’s ability to create and even think more clearly.”
Recent research has demonstrated the cognitive benefit of acting. Psychologist Helga Noice of Elmhurst (Ill.) College and her husband, cognitive researcher, actor, and director Tony Noice, showed that “a group of older adults who received a four-week course in acting showed significantly improved word-recall and problem-solving abilities compared to both a group that received a visual-arts course and a control group. The gains persisted four months afterward, as did a significant improvement in the seniors’ perceived quality of life.” Previous research by the couple showed that the key to memorizing lines of dialogue for actors is a process called active experiencing, which they say uses “all physical, mental, and emotional channels to communicate the meaning of material to another person.”
What I see connecting all of these separate observations is the emergence of a way of living that’s beneficial for brain health, not through food supplements or computer programs, but through everyday activities that are fun and fulfilling and only incidentally brain healthy. That’s the Master Way of Life. Ask yourself this question: does a farmer have to go to the gym? Of course not. (Well, maybe an agri-businessman driving an air-conditioned harvester does!) A traditional farmer gets his exercise toting bales of hay, repairing fences, and hoeing fields, and would scoff at the idea that exercise is separable from daily life. In the same way, brain health is fully integrated with the Master Way of Life; for Masters, brain health comes naturally.
Rather than seeking brain health in a pill you take or a program you run on your computer at a scheduled time of the day—both somehow separate from your “real” life—people living the Master Way of Life have created a total solution for brain health—and to life—through a rich, varied slate of daily activities.
The analogy to exercise and diet is helpful also in understanding why the balanced way of life approach to brain health makes sense. While we like to think that miracle diets will work, we all know in our heart of hearts that the only surefire path to long-lasting weight loss is consuming a balanced diet of fewer calories, coupled with exercise that burns calories. Likewise, while we all would like to believe that an exercise machine advertised on TV used for a few minutes a day will bring fitness, we all know deep inside that a balanced program of cardio exercise, weight training, isometrics, stretching (and rest!) is the only true path to fitness.
I want to make something very clear. I’m not promising that if you complete the Master Class you will immunize yourself against Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. The importance of staying mentally active has been popularly summarized in the phrase “Use It or Lose It,” and while our intuition tells us that this makes sense, that intuition may derive from our comfort with a phrase that seems valid in the more familiar world of physical exercise. The truth is that psychologists and cognitive scientists are split on the idea that behavioral changes can protect you from dementia. Still, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that lifestyle choices affect your physical and mental health, and positively affecting those aspects is what mastery is all about. And—who knows for sure?—lifestyle might budge the Elephant in the Room, too. One prominent cognitive scientist, Dr. Timothy Salthouse of the University of Virginia, summed it up this way: “Although my professional opinion is that at the present time the mental-exercise hypothesis is more of an optimistic hope than an empirical reality, my personal recommendation is that people should behave as though it were true. That is, people should continue to engage in mentally stimulating activities because even if there is not yet evidence that it has beneficial effects in slowing the rate of age-related decline in cognitive functioning, there is no evidence that it has any harmful effects, the activities are often enjoyable and thus may contribute to a higher quality of life, and engagement in cognitively demanding activities serves as an existence proof—if you can still do it, then you know that you have not yet lost it.”
The Master Class program brings many satisfactions—engagement, enrichment, and happiness—and it’s worth pursuing for those reasons alone. And it may, as Dr. Salthouse suggests, be good for your brain, too.
So, I’ve digressed to talk about the Elephant in the Room. Let’s get back to the scientific evidence. What’s the magic in socializing, moving, thinking, and creating? Why not sit alone and get a few laughs by watching the same television shows week after week? You probably feel instinctively that’s not the healthiest option, but why exactly is that so? It’s time to look more closely at the four “distribution requirements” of the Master Class and to review the evidence that they’re good for your life and your brain.
The Four Dimensions of the Master Way of Life
“People are good medicine: Strong social ties have been associated with lower blood pressure and longer life expectancies. Isolation appears to increase the risk of heart attacks. And a Swedish study of 776 people aged 75 or more linked frequent social interactions with a 42 percent reduction in the risk of dementia.” So said the Harvard Men’s Health Watch newsletter in 2006. Since then, the scientific support demonstrating the value of socializing for both brain health and general well-being has continued to mount.
—CAROLYN RUNDORFF, PORTLAND, ORE.
“I don’t stay home much. I get out and stay in touch with people. I’ve been alone for twenty-plus years. You can’t sit and worry and be pessimistic.”
One academic paper, “Mental Exercising Through Simple Socializing: Social Interaction Promotes General Cognitive Functioning,” provides a refreshing counterpoint to the frenzy for computerized and other brain exercise gimmicks. This study hypotheses that “more social factors, like simply engaging in social interaction, can also play a role in helping people stay mentally sharp.” The study’s authors review the ways in which interacting with other people calls on key brain functions like attention, working memory, executive function and inhibitions. An experiment they created shows that “short-term social interaction lasting 10 min[utes] boosted participants’ cognitive performance to a comparable extent as having participants engage in so-called intellectual activities for the same amount of time.”
In the experiment participants were divided into three groups and subjected to three different “conditions.” Participants in the “social interaction” condition engaged in a somewhat formal debate on privacy protection in today’s technological environment. (Note: this sounds like an activity that combines socializing and thinking.) Participants in the “intellectual activities” condition worked independently from others in the group on three complex mental tasks. The third “control” group watched an episode of the television sitcom Seinfeld. Following these sessions, all experiment participants were given tests measuring cognitive processing speed and working memory.
As you might expect, the Seinfeld-watching control group performed relatively poorly on the tests. Individuals in the other two groups on average did equally well on the tests, leading the researchers to conclude “that short-term social interaction… boosted participants’ cognitive performance to a comparable extent as having participants engage in so-called intellectual activities for the same amount of time.” Would other types of social interaction (“getting to know someone or chitchatting vs. discussion of an issue”) yield the same superior test performance? The authors of the study didn’t address this question, but suggest that it might be a fruitful approach for future research.
In the Swedish study cited by the Harvard Men’s Health Watch newsletter, the Karolinksa Institute’s Dr. Laura Fratiglioni approached the same question from the opposite side, exploring the deleterious or negative effect of social isolation, rather than the positive effect of social engagement. For a period of three years she followed more than a thousand healthy people and found that those with poor social networks were 60 percent more likely to develop dementia.
Strong social networks also promote general well-being, though unlike the rather contrived social interaction studied in the previous study, the key may be in having a small number of deep and enduring relationships. Alan Gow and his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland delved into a longitudinal database to investigate the link between socializing, cognitive health, and life satisfaction. They found that “the presence of key significant others is associated with cognitive ability or satisfaction with life in old age.”
—SUZANNE WHITE, KENT, OHIO
“I think like every other time in your life, don’t assume that you know everything. Get outside your comfort zone. Many of my friends are ten years younger than me but seem like they’re older than me. Stretch a little bit. Always associate with passionate people. Being a hospice nurse teaches you not to take anything for granted and make every day count.”
The larger question—and a fascinating one—is why socializing is so important to both well-being and cognitive health. The answer may lie deep in our evolutionary past, but a good place to start thinking about the question lies right in our daily experience. If you have now or ever have had parents, siblings, a spouse (or two), friends, or colleagues at work, you already know that the most complex, puzzling, gratifying, frustrating thing you’re ever likely to encounter in life is another person. Understanding other people—what exactly they mean when they talk, what their body language means, whether what person A says about person B is really true, what they’re thinking—is an extraordinary mental challenge. And for most of us, interacting with family, friends, or other people we know well and like can also be a very soothing experience.
The human brain is far more complex than the brains of other animals, including our nearest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. The reason for this complexity, anthropologists are now learning, is because the brain evolved specifically to help us navigate our complex relationships with others of our own species. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, in his book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, offers a fascinating look at this question. (This is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read and I highly recommend it.) “We are social beings,” Dunbar writes, “and our world—no less than that of the monkeys and apes—is cocooned in the interests and minutiae of everyday social life. They fascinate us beyond measure.”
Dunbar carefully studied the social lives and the biology of these large primates and made some interesting comparisons with human beings. He found the typical group size in which primates and humans operate bears a remarkably consistent correlation with neocortex size. (The neocortex is the part of the brain where the most sophisticated processes, such as language, occur.) As group size increases, the myriad of social relationships one has to keep track of increases even faster. When it’s just you and another person, you only have to keep track of one relationship. When it’s you and two other people, you have to keep track of your relationship with each of them and be aware of how they relate to each other, for a total of three relationships. When it’s you and three other people, there are six relationships to keep track of. We’ve only doubled the number of people in this social network, but the number of relationships to keep track of has increased six times. Double the number of people involved again to eight, and we’re up to twenty-eight relationships. (Trust me, I did the math.)
—MEREDITH MCCULLOCH, BEDFORD, MASS.
“I love being in one place because I like a community of people who I know and who enjoy the same things I do. I love a community that’s challenging and loving at the same time.”
The great apes typically congregate in social groups of about thirty to forty individuals, and their brain size is sufficient for them to keep track of their troop’s complex social structure. The neocortex of the human brain is about four times as large as that of our nearest primate relative, so, Dunbar theorized, we should expect that human beings would congregate comfortably in groups about four times larger, or around 150 individuals. As it turns out, groups of this approximate number turn up again and again in human society. The Hutterite religious sect, for example, consistently subdivides its communities once they reach that size because at that number “it becomes increasingly difficult to control its members by peer pressure alone.” The Mormon leader Brigham Young likewise organized his followers into groups of around 150 during the Mormon trek from Illinois to Utah in the nineteenth century. British and American military companies in the Second World War included on average about 170 men. Around 150—or “Dunbar’s Number,” as it has come to be known—appears to be the optimum size for human groups that rely primarily on face-to-face communication to maintain social cohesion. (Is it just a coincidence that on the day I wrote this paragraph I had 142 friends on Facebook?)
The great apes spend an enormous amount of their time grooming, an activity that on the surface seems rather pointless aside from the obvious benefit of keeping each other’s hair free of insects and other detritus. But grooming has enormous social benefits as well as being an effective way of cementing relationships and building group solidarity. In addition, it feels good; it’s soothing and pleasurable.
—JUDITH EMMERS, MARYSVILLE, PENN.
“Attitude. It’s all about attitude. If you get up in the morning and you grouse about the weather you’re not going to have a good day. You have to make your own happiness. You’ve got ownership. Try to surround yourself with people with similar attitudes and lifestyles, people who are living in the moment rather than talking about what they did in their former life.”
Of course, human beings don’t groom each other, so what do they use instead to maintain relationships with one another? The answer, Dunbar says, is language and, more specifically, gossip—studies have shown that about two-thirds of human conversation is devoted to talking about other people and what they’re been doing, what they might do in the future, who they like, who they don’t like, and so on. Language and the human brain evolved to enable humans, a physically weak species compared to its prehistoric predators, to “manage” the larger group size it required for mutual support and protection. And while language is now put to many abstract and creative purposes, its original and primary purpose is to facilitate what sounds like idle social chitchat but is really the glue that holds human groups together.
What type of book sells the most copies? Fiction—accounts of how people relate to one another—comes in first. After fiction, what type of book comes next? Biography—stories about the lives of people—comes in second. Fiction and biographies outsell other book categories because they best tickle an organ that evolved as a tool for navigating society.
Dunbar’s compelling work is why I put socializing first in the list of the four distribution requirements of the Master Class. Interacting with others is, you might say, the purest form of brain exercise. But there’s more to it than that. Grooming great apes release pleasure-inducing chemicals in the brain called beta-endorphins, and it’s reasonable to extrapolate that even the most casual of positive social interactions among humans have the same effect. Socializing exercises the brain in such a unique way that it promotes cognitive health and general well-being in one neat and efficient package.
Once you have Dunbar’s perspective on human physical and social evolution, the research of the psychologists on the link between social engagement, successful aging, and cognitive health starts to make more sense. The paper I cited earlier, “Mental Exercise Through Simple Socializing,” included the following sentence in inimitable academic-ese: “Research in social cognition has long emphasized that the inferential processes underlying social interaction involve a complex set of computations.” Dunbar’s clear and compelling writing breathes life into this concept and leaves us understanding exactly how complex that set of computations is in the real world. Imagine the mental work involved in keeping track of who did what to whom, who’s lying and who’s telling the truth, and how everyone relates to everyone else, in a group of 150 people!
The social interaction “condition” I described from the “Mental Exercising Through Simple Socializing” research involved a group of people who were asked to take sides in a debate about privacy issues. This is clearly a different and potentially more stressful social situation than sitting around gossiping about your friends and family. There’s an element of competition that seems at odds with the cooperative and mutually beneficial nature of grooming and, for the most part, gossiping. Well, competition may also be good for your brain. In a fascinating book entitled On the Origin of Stories, author Brian Boyd writes that
most researchers accept the social intelligence hypothesis: that the greatest pressures for advanced intelligence arise from the need to track the identities, status, powers, and intentions of conspecifics [a fancy word for “others of the same species”] and to respond to them to best advantage. Animals like dogs, dolphins, and primates have to cooperate with conspecifics subtly enough to earn the resources obtainable only together. But they also need to compete with them to maximize their share of socially earned resources without risking prospects for future cooperation. This shifting balance of competition and cooperation exacts high computational demands. Individuals must track other individuals and their predispositions and relations to themselves and others, a complex task in species with changeable hierarchies and fluid alliances.
Masters seem to know instinctively how to enrich their lives with socializing. Not only do they flock to certain activities rich in both thinking and socializing—think of playing the card game bridge, or participating in a book club—but they also find creative ways to enrich with a social dimension activities that might otherwise be solitary and isolating to an unhealthy degree. One Master reported that he and his spouse enjoy listening to academic lectures on DVDs but, instead of listening to them alone, they gathered a group of friends together to form an ad hoc class that listens to each lecture and debates it afterward. Another couple who love going to the movies always goes with a group of friends. When the movie is over they adjourn to a local restaurant, where they take turns rating and evaluating the movie before proceeding to a general discussion. They probably have chosen this group path not for brain exercise or beta-endorphin release but because it’s, well, more fun. Nevertheless, they get the cognitive benefit, and you can, too.
—THERESA DONOHUE, AMITYVILLE, N.Y.
“If you start out retirement without a hobby or something it’s difficult because you won’t have an office to depend on anymore. Follow your interests, and find a group to do it with. I think doing it with a group is important because it’s social and it keeps you motivated. I know people who sit at home and wait for their children to call them. They feel they’re owed it—they gave their children a lot of their time and now the children should be satisfying their parents’ needs. There’s so much available. But you have to do the legwork.”
At the stage in your life when you can choose the Master Way of Life, there can be a lot of transitions going on that put socializing in jeopardy. In our society of go-it-alone, rugged individualism, men in particular are more prone to social disengagement than women. At retirement, for example, men lose the socially stimulating environment of the workplace and out of sheer laziness sink into dependence on their wives for socializing (or at least for organizing any socializing they do). They often delude themselves into thinking this is sufficient. They’re wrong. For men especially, taking deliberate and positive steps to create a socializing dimension in their lives is critical for achieving the well-being and cognitive health offered by the Master Class.
Men seem to believe that they can make up for what they lose in socializing in the other three dimensions. Sure, they might argue in that ongoing conversation we all have with ourselves, I know more socializing would be great, but that’s really not for me. I’ll get more exercise, read more, and design a website.
Here’s the problem. It’s not just that socializing is good for you—it’s that not socializing is actually bad for you. If you don’t socialize, you don’t stay where you are; you drift backward. A 1999 study of the topic found that “the odds of experiencing cognitive decline were approximately twice as great in the most disengaged respondents (those reporting no social ties) than in the most engaged respondents (those with five or more ties).”
Women, on the other hand, seem able to carry their old relationships forward into new stages of their lives. But both men and women—and women carry an extra burden because they live longer on average—risk losing that “key significant other” that Alan Gow found to be such an important element of well-being. If you haven’t thought about this, perhaps the words of the late Robert Butler, the longtime director of the International Longevity Center, will bring it home. “[My wife] died last year. It was devastating. I haven’t recovered. One of the many ways Myrna’s death affects me is that we can’t reminisce together. But it’s worse than that; there is just this terrific loneliness. You keep going. Being left alone is one of the facts of aging. There’s data that suggests that people can actually die of a broken heart, become sick because of it.”
I’ve tried to use reason (and maybe a little fear) to convince you of the importance of socializing to well-being and cognitive health. Some psychologists have used the metaphor of the convoy to communicate the set of relationships we ought to develop in order to maximize our well-being. Think of a convoy of warships (our friends) protecting vulnerable cargo ships (us) from German U-boats as we cross the Atlantic during the Second World War.
Convoys are generally conceived of as an assembly of close family and friends, who surround the individual and are available as resources in times of need… The hierarchical mapping technique was used to assess the nature of respondents’ social relations. In this technique, respondents are presented with a set of three concentric circles with the word YOU written in the middle. They are asked to name the people who comprised their social network according to the following set of instructions: in the inner circle, people are placed who are “so close and important that it is hard to imagine life without them”; in the middle circle, “people to whom you may not feel quite that close but who are still very important to you”; and in the outer circle, “people who are close enough and important enough in your life that they should be placed in your personal network.”
The dimension of time should be added to this picture, because people are constantly falling out of or moving closer to the center of our social circle. We meet new people and they become acquaintances, acquaintances become friends. Or, on the flip side of the coin, we meet someone at a party and we never see them again. The point is this: unless you’re one of those extraordinarily magnetic people who seem to attract friends like iron filings, the convoy won’t assemble itself by magic. We need to cultivate our convoy in a determined and proactive way. The Master Class will help you do just that.
I have some bad news for you: your brain is just another organ. Centuries ago, the French philosopher Rene Descartes stuck us with an artificial distinction between mind and body, and there certainly is something that seems mysteriously different about this uniquely human variation of an organ all animals possess. But when I say that it’s “just” another organ what I really mean is that, like other organs, it thrives best when it’s well cared for in a physical sense, when it receives a rich supply of blood, oxygen, and other nutrients.
—STEPHANIE BERRY, WINTER GARDEN, FLA.
“Use it or lose it. We walk three miles a day, because if you don’t, then you can’t. It’s truly both physical and mental. If you don’t stay engaged, why bother.”
In fact, your brain requires substantially more than its share of care and feeding. “Although your brain accounts for no more than 2 per cent of you body weight,” wrote Robin Dunbar, “it consumes 20 per cent of all the energy you eat. In other words, pound for pound, the brain burns up to ten times as much energy to keep itself going as the rest of the body does.” The Roman poet Juvenal famously wrote, “Mens sana in corpore sano”—“A sound mind in a sound body”—a saying that confers ancient wisdom on the idea that the best way to keep your mind healthy is to keep your body healthy. Whether that’s exactly what Juvenal meant or not, the modern interpretation of his words couldn’t be more true. Your brain, an organ that depends on oxygen delivered by a healthy circulatory system, will tend to be healthy when your heart and the rest of your blood-delivery system are healthy. And your mood and sense of well-being will benefit, too.
There are several other important physical steps you can take to keep your brain healthy. It’s good advice but outside the scope of this book—I’ve briefly described them in Figure 2.
The scientific evidence supporting this idea comes from the field of neurobiology as well as from the observations of psychologists. Long-standing research shows that people who have made a habit of exercise throughout their lives have, when they reach middle or older age, greater cognitive abilities and healthier brains than those who didn’t exercise. But this older research begs the question: did the exercise lead to brain health, or are people who start with higher cognitive function more likely to make a lifetime habit of exercise? (This is an important question, because there are plenty of people—even some of you who are reading this book—who believe that it’s too late to start exercising, that the damage is done and it’s too late to make a change. Don’t believe it.)
—CORINNE LYON, CHICAGO, ILL.
“I’m lucky enough to live across the street from a gym. I go over there two mornings a week and work out for an hour at 5:30 a.m., and then see a trainer for another hour. I also do water aerobics three times a week. I do it so I can keep doing the things I love, not because I love the exercise. It’s just important and it has results, so I continue to do it. I didn’t start exercising until I was sixty-six.”
More recent studies have gone beyond this early research to test whether “interventions” (i.e., putting previously sedentary people into exercise programs) would have a positive effect on cognitive functioning. One study compared cognitive improvement among three test groups—one that took up an aerobic exercise program, a second that participated in strength and flexibility exercises, and a control group that did not exercise. The aerobic group saw significant improvements in cardiovascular functioning and also on several measures of cognitive functioning, while the other groups did not. A similar study showed that participants in a walking program, compared to another group that did only stretching and toning, showed improvements in so-called executive control processes that enable us to “ignore irrelevant visual information, abort a preprogrammed action, and coordinate multiple tasks”—the very skills that other studies have shown tend to erode as we age.
But why exactly does exercise improve brain function and health? Studies of laboratory mice that have been put on exercise programs suggest that exercise increases the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, and increased serotonin in turn leads to increase in the production of new neurons. Neurons are the building blocks of the brain; if you make more of them, your capacity for creating new memories and other advanced brain functions will also increase.
If this is true for mice, is it also true for humans? For decades ethical considerations kept scientists from using the research techniques on humans that they use on laboratory rats and mice. (If this needs spelling out, I mean that we don’t keep humans in cages or dissect their brains.) Now, however, advanced brain imaging techniques like MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) have enabled scientists to peer into the human brain in ways they couldn’t before.
The most recent studies have brought the research full circle. Previous studies, as we’ve seen, put people into exercise programs and then used paper-and-pencil cognitive tests to measure any possible impact on brain health. Now neuroscientists can use the same research plan with the new imaging techniques to see what, if any, changes in the brain are caused by exercise.
—SHAUNA FITZGERALD, KIRKLAND, WASH.
“Be active, be aware of what’s around you and what’s happening in the world. Don’t rely on what you can see and learn from watching TV—you have to be moving, walking, enjoying your surroundings. It’s too easy to sit and do nothing. You have to just try things. What’s the worst thing that could happen? You’ve lost a few hours of your life.”
One 2008 study was designed to test “whether aerobic fitness training of older humans can increase brain volume in regions associated with age-related decline in both brain structure and cognition.” Just as in the pre-MRI research, the people in the study were split into three groups: one that did aerobic exercise, a second that did stretching and toning, and a third nonexercise control group. The two exercise groups participated in three one-hour exercise sessions each week for the six months of the study. The aerobic exercise group showed a significant improvement in cardiorespiratory functioning (“peak oxygen uptake”) compared to the stretching and toning group.
And what was the result of the imaging? The researchers “found that participation in an aerobic exercise program increased volume in both gray and white [brain] matter primarily located in prefrontal and temporal cortices—those same regions that are often reported to show substantial age-related deterioration.” In sum, these findings “highlight the potential importance of aerobic exercise in not only staving off neural decline in aging humans, but also suggest promise as an effective mechanism to roll back some of the normal age-related losses in brain structure” (emphasis added).
When it comes to moving, size does matter. One roundup of hundreds of other academic studies published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest summarized this point as follows: “fitness-training sessions that lasted longer than 30 minutes resulted in larger cognitive improvements than short training sessions did.”
Excerpted from Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier by Peter Spiers Copyright © 2012 by Peter Spiers. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Peter Spiers is Senior Vice President at Boston-based not-for-profit Road Scholar where he is responsible for strategic planning, marketing and communications, and research. Prior to joining Road Scholar, he worked for 17 years at Rodale, Inc. as publisher, group publisher, and vice president for strategic planning.
He is a graduate of Harvard College, the London School of Economics, and the Tuck School of Business Administration at Dartmouth. He is the co-author of "The Group House Handbook" (Acropolis, 1982) and editor of "The Elderhostel Odyssey" (Elderhostel, 2005).
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In Master Class, author Peter Spiers shows the 78 million Baby Boomers in the United States how to "live longer, stronger and happier." Spiers is the Senior Vice President of Road Scholar, and interviewed many members of that organization as part of his research for this book. Comments from interviewees are included throughout the book. The premise of the entire book is based on four ideas as the elements of the "Master Life:" "socializing, moving, thinking and creating." In the first part of the book, Spiers explains the "master life" theory and expounds on the four elements as mentioned above. The remaining four sections helps the reader create their own Master Life. The reader completes assignments for each of the four elements. At the end of each section, the reader takes a final exam. The ideas in this book are inspiring and exciting and I'm ready to embark on a journey to "live longer, stronger and happier." Every baby boomer should read this book, keep it close at hand for reference, and implement this program in their life. Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger and Happier published on June 26, and is now available at your favorite bookstore or order it online through Barnes & Noble.
It is full of wonderful information in a language easy to follow