Jul 12

Midlife Crisis Onward: Older Stages of Life

What really happens in our aging process? Is there a “midlife crisis” for everyone? How about when we get even older? Below are two books that address such issues.

I. Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty (2016)

Hagerty had suspected she was entering a “midlife crisis“—and she wanted to know how to navigate such an imposing hurdle.

What Hagerty learned from interviewing “an astonishing number of middle-aged men and women and the psychologists, sociologists, physicians, geneticists, and neuroscientists who study them,” was positive and hopeful, notes Kirkus Reviews: “The experience of middle age, she has discovered, ‘is more mountaintop than valley,’ characterized not by depression but by optimism and renewal, happiness and growth.”

Selected Quotes from Life Reimagined

The men and women who scored highest on conscientiousness—that is, who control their impulses, who were dependable and goal-oriented—had 89 percent lower risk of developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s than the least conscientious people.

Choose where to invest your energy, and do so intentionally, because the clearest path to a robust midlife is purposeful engagement.

In fact, people with little purpose were two and a half times more likely to develop dementia than those with a mission.

II. Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life by Louise Aronson (2019)

A physician specializing in the care of those of us over 60, Louise Aronson explores the various facets of this developmental stage most hope to reach.

The following is an excerpt from Elderhood about aging beyond midlife:

For most people, early, middle, and advanced old age are significantly different. In our current conceptualization of old, physical degradations and lost options are its sine qua non. That’s why, until those things become overwhelming, many people don’t think of themselves as old, even when most younger people would swiftly and definitively put them in that category. When people arrive at the stereotypical version of old, they sometimes no longer feel like themselves, although for most of us the transition to old happens gradually over decades beginning at age twenty. The changes are both positive and negative, though we tend to focus on the latter. Those losses and diminutions are imperceptible at first, then easy to disregard, then possible to work around, and, finally, blatant.

Many in the medical field overly focus on the negative changes as well. Harvey Freedenberg, Bookpage.com, regarding the “stubborn insistence on treating organs and diseases rather than whole human beings, often prizing science and technology over simple, compassionate care”:

These efforts typically trigger costly late-life interventions that may be successful in the narrowest sense, prolonging life for a time but often inflicting physical and psychological pain on their recipients that severely compromises their quality of life. Aronson advocates for a new care paradigm, focused on the ‘optimization of health and well-being,’ even when an earlier death may be the consequence.

Selected quotes from Elderhood and/or the author’s interviews:

..(O)lder adults surpass younger adults on all measures, showing less stress, depression, worry, and anger, and more enjoyment, happiness, and satisfaction. 

In reality, aging and living are essentially the same process, socially and biologically, and elderhood is a highly varied life phase that lasts twenty to forty years. (mariashriver.com)

People look at geriatrics and old age as the thing that happens before you die. No. It lasts decades and has all these stages and substages and most of them are quite wonderful for most people. A big message of the book is that so much of what’s horrible about old age isn’t about aging nearly as much as it is about our dysfunctional approach to it. (AARP)

Apr 15

“Remember”: L. Genova On Forgetting

Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting is new nonfiction by neuroscientist Lisa Genova. Genova is also the author of several novels, including Still Alice, about a 50-year-old professor who’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It later became a movie starring Julianne Moore.

Although aspects of Alzheimer’s are addressed in Genova’s new book, Remember is more about the kind of memory issues everyone faces at times. As her publisher’s blurb reminds us, “Just because your memory sometimes fails doesn’t mean it’s broken or succumbing to disease. Forgetting is actually part of being human.”

The three-part structure of Remember includes How We Remember, What We Forget, and Improve or Impair. In brief:

  1. Remembering has a great deal to do with the amount of attention we give something. (Interested? Or not?)
  2. We forget a lot of things, and that’s okay. (Multitasking impairs memory.)
  3. There are things we can do to remember better. (Sadly, solving crossword puzzles is not one of them.)

In addition, from the Publishers Weekly review: “She explains the different kinds of memory (such as working memory and muscle memory) and the pitfalls inherent in each (such as how relying on working memory can lead to forgetfulness, and muscle memory can sustain bad habits), before exploring the functions of forgetting and the distinction between normal memory failures and something more serious. Genova blends popular science and self-help, providing lay reader-friendly descriptions of the function of memory and sharing tips for better memory in a helpful appendix.”

And from Kirkus Reviews: “In conversational language, Genova details how the brain processes events and how we have the power to help select what transfers from fleeting knowledge to long-term memory. For example, while it is common to forget the name of a person you briefly met, you can also train yourself to improve attention to such details and improve recall. ‘Memory is the sum of what we remember and what we forget,’ writes the author, ‘and there is an art and science to both.'”

So, how do we actually train ourselves regarding recall? One Goodreads reviewer says she learned the following: “…I need to pay attention to details I want to remember, decrease distractions, rehearse facts, self-test (quiz myself on what I know), attach meaning to moments, use visual and spatial memory, use lists, and keep a diary. I loved the idea to replicate context during memory retrieval, too. So if I study for a botany test while drinking a Mocha Frappuccino, I’ll try to drink the same thing while I’m taking the test so that I can recall information better.”

What about reducing your risk of ever getting Alzheimer’s? Suggestions include a Mediterranean diet, sufficient vitamin D, avoidance of alcohol (including red wine), physical exercise, getting adequate sleep, preventing and/or dealing with cardiovascular issues, managing stress, doing meditation, and learning new things.

Jul 28

“Alive Inside”: How Dan Cohen’s “Music & Memory” Helps

Michael Rossato-Bennett filmed social worker Dan Cohen and his work with his nonprofit Music & Memory for three years to create the documentary Alive Inside, about music having the power “to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering from it” (IMDB).

From the Mission Statement of Music & Memory: “Executive Director Dan Cohen founded Music & Memory with a simple idea: Someday, if he ended up in a nursing home, he wanted to be able to listen to his favorite ‘60s music. He’d heard a recent news report about how iPods have grown so popular. Why not bring used iPods as well as new ones into nursing homes, to provide personalized music for residents?”

As shown in Alive Inside, it’s an idea well-respected neurologist Oliver Sacks strongly supports, as music memory is more accessible than other types.

James Thilman, The Huffington Post, quotes film director Rossato-Bennett’s reaction to witnessing one man’s amazing transformation. “When [Henry] started to emerge from the cocoon that he had been inside of for ten years, we discovered that he wasn’t just a man — he was a poet, he was a singer. He was lost to the world, and when he emerged, I just started crying.”

Henry’s not the only one seen coming alive to the music. A couple others are described below by Rob Nelson, Variety:

John, a quiet Army vet who served at Los Alamos, perks up at the sound of the Andrews Sisters, practically dancing in his chair. Denise, a bipolar schizophrenic and Schubert fan, pushes away the walking frame she’d been using every day for two years and begins to dance.

One notable benefit of music therapy in nursing homes is a significant decrease in the prescription of antipsychotic medications.

Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post, states, “Music isn’t a cure for anything. But it does seem to be a key to unlocking long-closed doors and establishing connections with people who have become, through age or infirmity, imprisoned inside themselves.”

The trailer to Alive Inside is offered below:

Selected Reviews

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “…(I)t won the audience award at Sundance this year because it will completely slay you, and it has the greatest advantages any such movie can have: Its cause is easy to understand, and requires no massive social change or investment…Cohen’s crusade to bring music into nursing homes could be the leading edge of a monumental change in the way we approach the care and treatment of older people, especially the 5 million or so Americans living with dementia disorders.”

Nicolas Rapold, New York Times: “Neither the value of music nor the deficiencies of certain nursing homes are tough to debate. But a documentary that never leaves any doubt about what comes next, while single-mindedly stumping for a cause presented as unique, is also not terribly interesting as a film.”