Healthy Aging

Healthy Aging

Bill Moyers interviewed Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot on his PBS Journal recently about her latest book: The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50.

I’m in the third chapter myself, the years between 50 and 75. There are 76 million of us in America in that boomer cohort, perhaps including yourself or people near and dear to you.

I am paying more attention these days to the slowing down required of my body-mind in this third chapter. I cannot push from dawn til dusk the way I used to. [I know I shouldn’t push so much anyway, but my friend Terry Trotter’s “slow is the new fast” doesn’t always register as much as I would like it to.] It took three of us the other day to collectively remember the title, author and plot of the Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Shipping News. My wallet went missing for an hour and a half yesterday, and I felt the emotional tidal wave of “It’s the beginning of the end!” before it reappeared.

I would like my hours and days – in what could be a time of relentless diminishment – loss of hearing and/or loss of memory and/or loss of mobility – leading to the dreaded doldrums of aging: dips into disappointment, disheartening, discouragement, depression – to be a time instead of restored hope, renewed vision, new wisdom, and a deepening joy of belonging.

As John O’Donohue suggests in “Aging: The Beauty of the Inner Harvest” in his book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom: “To understand the harvest of your soul against the background of seasonal rhythm should give you a sense of quiet delight at the arrival of this time in your life. It should give you strength and a sense of how the deeper belonging of your soul-world will be revealed to you.”

I would like that ancient Celtic wisdom, and this ancient Talmudic wisdom:

For the unlearned, old age is winter; for the learned, it is the season of harvest to be true, at least to be a possibility.

This month’s Reflections on Healthy Aging offers the wisdom and research findings of three of our wisest elders, that the possibility of finding new views, new meanings, new dimensions of being, and new venues of belonging are precisely what makes the process of aging meaningful, graceful, and healthful.

The old should be explorers, be curious, risk transgression, explore oldness itself.
-T.S. Eliot

At this liminal season of Equinox, the turning of the balance of light and dark toward the harvest, may these resources and tools of healthy aging be useful to you and yours.


Ellen Langer, renowned social psychologist at Harvard, has authored 14 books and more than 200 research articles during her 30 years of pioneering mind-body research.

In her latest book, Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, Langer suggests that our beliefs and expectations impact our physical health at least as much as diets and doctors do, and that mindfulness is a primary tool to reverse the negative impacts of illness and aging. She proposes that, as we grow older, our physical limitations are largely determined by the way we think about ourselves and what we’re capable of.

As a result, she argues, we need to challenge our socially constructed, implicitly learned assumptions around health and aging in order to take control of our own health.

As evidence, Langer points to her 1979 “Counter Clockwise” study in which eight elderly men lived in a residential retreat that recreated a social-physical environment as though it were 1959. After one week sequestered in a virtual turning back of the clock 20 years, all eight participants showed marked improvements in their hearing, memory, dexterity, appetite, and general well-being. They even looked younger to outside observers who saw photos of them before and after the experiment

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?
– Satchel Paige.

Langer cites other research that shows similar findings. In one study, for instance, 650 people were surveyed about their attitudes on aging. Twenty years later, those with a positive attitude had lived seven years longer on average than those with a negative attitude. (By contrast, researchers estimate that we extend our lives by four years if we lower our blood pressure and reduce our cholesterol.) In another study, participants read a list of negative words about aging; within 15 minutes, they were walking more slowly than they had before.

While Langer’s “psychology of possibility” may not be able to stem the tide of diminishment in every instance – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s loss of income, loss of spouse, loom large in the doldrums of dreads about aging – after reading her book I find myself paying far more conscious attention to what I believe about the promises and perils of aging than I used to.

“That beliefs might be the most important determinant of life span goes against the grain of what we ’know’ to be true,” writes Langer. Indeed, by considering whether limbs can regenerate or paralysis be reversed, Langer tries to push science beyond what we know, to discover what might be. The evidence is mounting that Langer’s psychology of possibility may have deep practical wisdom in it.

Louis Cozolino, psychologist at Pepperdine University, wrote the definitive book for clinicians on The Neuroscience of Relationships – how human attachment develops the very structures of the brain that support our social intelligence and become the platform for life-long resilience and well-being.

In his latest book, The Healthy Aging Brain: Sustaining Attachment, Attaining Wisdom, Cozolino provides a very accessible understanding of how our brains age and what we can do to sustain the natural neural plasticity of our brains that maintains long-term brain health and function.

His main premise, not surprisingly, is that how well we age is inextricably linked to the level of fulfillment in our human relationships, the intimate and social connections that help our brains survive, thrive and grow.

“Caring supportive others create a state of body and mind that primes our internal biology for new learning – a pro-plasticity state of mind. If social interactions and neural plasticity are synergistic, it is clear why elders who become isolated are more likely to lose cognitive functions. On the other hand, those that remain connected and needed are far more likely to remain vital and alive. Isolation, and lack of challenge and stimulation, are the enemies of neuroplastic processes and brain health.”

Social support slows many internal processes related to brain and body aging. Research findings are piling up. “Good relationships serve to increase health and longevity” is becoming irrefutable. “Positive social support is associated with better mental health, cardiovascular health, immunological functioning, and cognitive performance in older adults.”

But the nourishment of intimate and social connections is a two-way street. According to Cozolino, as people age and mature into the role of wise elder, they contribute immeasurably to the resiliency of our social fabric by becoming the storytellers of the new generation and keepers of meaning, preserving human wisdom, sustaining our culture. The changes in our brains as we age support the emergence of these roles, good news for those of us frantic about fading memories and slower recall of factoids.

How does one keep from “growing old inside”? In community. The only way to make friends with time is to stay friends with people.
– Robert McAfee Brown

Both Langer and Cozolino provide ample research data to document the importance of staying open to the new – new views, new skills, new roles, new relationships – in a journey of healthy aging. In The Third Chapter, Sara Lightfoot shares the stories of 40 self-identified “new learners” – men and women who found the motivation and passion to risk venturing into the new at 50, or 60, or 70.

With a great deal of empathy and respect for the risks and vulnerabilities of anyone reinventing themselves at any age, Lightfoot traces the deepening courage and maturity of people like Roma, a physicist who, at age 57, cut back her hours in the lab to begin teaching astronomy after school to inner city youth. Or Rose, an architect going on her first archaeological dig at the site of a stop on the Underground railroad at age 70. Or Josh, a retired factory worker who completed his first half-marathon at age 70 to raise money for cancer research. Or Lucinda, a successful business woman in her 50’s who found her way to doing volunteer relief work in Kosovo.

Not that it’s easy to start taking voice lessons at 67, as Steve, a public health doctor did, to reclaim a childhood dream of singing opera. Nor to find the courage to begin painting again at age 63 after an 8th grade teacher said, “You’ll never be a real artist.” It’s not easy.

The power of Lightfoot’s sharing the stories of the 40 new learners she came to deeply respect and admire (as do we) is in the poignant exploration of the deeply internal journey of change and adaptation, of coming to peace with the past and reclaiming dreams that earlier trauma or oppression had de-railed. Themes of expansion and emptiness, loss and liberation, constancy and change, failure and resilience, looking back and giving forward. As these new learners cross barriers and boundaries to new dimensions in their lives, there is an amplification of energy, a recovery of authenticity, a redemption of travail and sorrow. And we learn from them, as role models and beacons, not only how they did it, but that it can be done at all.


It’s not how old you are but how you are old.
– Jules Renard

* * * * *

And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.
– Abraham Lincoln

* * * * *

Whether we live to a vigorous old age lies not so much in our stars or in our genes but in ourselves.
– George Vaillant

* * * * *

People like you and I, though mortal of course like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live. We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.
– Albert Einstein

* * * * *

Those who live deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young.
– Sir Arthur Pinero

* * * * *

Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.
– Samuel Ullman

* * * * *

None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.
– Henry David Thoreau

* * * * *

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80.
– Henry Ford

* * * * *

You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.
– Pearl S. Buck

* * * * *

Often old people have a touching mellowness about them. Age is not dependent on chronological time. Age is more related to a person’s temperament. I know some young people who are about eighteen or twenty that are so serious, grave, and gloomy that they sound like ninety-year-olds. Conversely, I know some very old people who have hearts full of roguery, devilment and fun; there is a sparkle in their presence. When you meet them, you have a sense of light, lightness and gaiety. Sometimes in very old bodies there are incredibly young, wild souls looking out at you. It is invigorating to meet a wild old person who has remained faithful to their wild life force. The passionate heart never ages.
– John O’Donahue, Anam Cara

* * * * *

First you are young; then you are middle-aged; then you are old; then you are wonderful.
– Lady Diana Cooper

* * * * *

You don’t stop laughing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop laughing.
– Michael Pritchard

* * * * *

To keep the heart unwrinkled, to be hopeful, kindly, cheerful, reverent, that is to triumph over old age.
– Amos Bronson Alcott

* * * * *

Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been.
– Mark Twain

* * * * *


My face catches the wind
from the snow line
and flushes with a flush
that will never wholly settle.
Well, that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young forever, to pass.
I was never a pre-Raphaelite beauty
and only pretty enough to be seen
with a man who wanted to be seen
with a passable woman.

But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake,
my waist thicken, and the years
work all their usual changes.

If my face is to be weather beaten as well,
it’s little enough lost
for the years among the trees and trails
where simply to look out over the hills
at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors
and to what my soul may wear
over its new complexion.
– Fleur Adcock


I’ve been collecting stories of people like the new learners in my mental rolodex for quite some time. People who show me how life can be lived well, even in the face of loss, adversity, diminishment.

One of my favorite role models is Charlotte Siegel, the soon-to-be-90-year-old mother of my friend Eve. And here’s one of her most recent stories.

When Charlotte was widowed at 83, she decided to close one of the most major chapters in her life, 61 years of marriage to her anthropologist husband Bernard. Rather than live on alone in the home on campus where she and Bernard had lived for the last 35 years, she sold the home, found a promising young student to become the new guardian of Bernard’s precious grand piano, and moved into a senior residential complex where she could have a sense of companionship and community with others in similar boats facing similar sea changes in their lives.

Within a few months of moving into her new complex, Charlotte, a social worker for more than half a century, saw the need for people to come together and wrestle in an honest way with the “treachery of transition” (Lightfoot’s phrase) but also to explore what the possibilities of the new chapter might be. She started a weekly, drop-in transition group where people could feel safe to discuss the “over-ness” of things: loss of health, loss of spouse, loss of freedom, privacy, lifestyle, loss of identity, loss of financial security. And also find support for the new adventures, bus trips to the symphony, guest lectures on contemporary art, expanding concerns for the world beyond the personal.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that what’s healthy is engagement. That’s what keeps my brain percolating. I feel my brain “jiggling” from these conversations, from engaging directly with the issues confronting us,” says Charlotte

The transition group continues to this day, 12-25 people gathering every week to face into the limitations of time, and the possibilities of the new, together.


All the research on healthy aging points to the paramount importance of lifelong learning. Not accumulating more facts, but requiring our brains to learn new processes – learning to speak a foreign language, learning to play a musical instrument, learning to draw from the right side of the brain – processes that stimulate the brain to grow new neurons and integrate those neurons into new circuits and pathways.

In Buddhism, what is known as beginner’s mind is a way to look at the world as if for the first time: with interest, enthusiasm, and engagement. This may be the optimal state of mind for a healthy brain.
– Louis Cozolino

1. Ellen Langer sees mindful awareness as our primary tool for reversing the negative impacts of illness and aging. She defines mindfulness as attending to variability, noticing the new. “How is this moment of depression different from ten minutes ago?” “How did this cold start differently from last month’s cold?” “What do I notice about my fear level if I consider myself “cured” rather than “in remission?”

Try using your own mindful awareness to notice any variability
– in the pain of a headache before reaching for an aspiring;
– in your self-doubt or self-encouragement when facing a new task (even opening that bottle of aspirin with a child-proof cap);
– in your level of interest in the world if you take an unfamiliar route home from work;
– in your engagement with an issue if you read an article from a point of view opposing, even contradicting, your own;
– in what changes about your sense of self if you do something everyone tells you you are too old for.

2. Louis Cozolino is passionate about doing something to stimulate the brain by learning something new, and to nourish the brain by doing it in relationship. Appendix One in his The Healthy Aging Brain offers: 52 Ways to Avoid Hardening of the Categories: A Program of Personal Experiments. Five of my personal favorites are:

1. Play with children whenever possible.
2. Learn something new from someone new every day.
3. Go to a new restaurant and eat something that sounds a little strange.
4. Buy some new gadget and ask a young person to teach you how to use it.
5. Learn the name of a new person in your neighborhood every day.

3. Reclaiming a childhood dream is not the only way new learners in Lightfoot’s The Third Chapter spark a new adventure in their lives, but it was key for many of them.

In a quiet, safe place and time, allow yourself to slowly feel your way back into memories of safety, of ease, of delight. Delight often gets de-railed b y duty as we mature and age. Let yourself remember two or three activities that created a sense of delight, laughter, playfulness in you when you were a child, at least before you had to start earning a living or raising a family. Pick one to experiment with in the next few weeks. If the well of memories seems dry, gather with a few other people to brainstorm; the support and generativity of the group may surprise – and delight – you.


Resources on healthy aging are mushrooming as the boomer cohort moves well into the third chapter, and beyond. The resources cited in Reflections are simply a few excellent ones that have crossed my desk in recent months.

Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility by Ellen J. Langer, PhD. Ballantine books, 2009

Langer challenges readers to challenge their assumptions about health and aging, taking on the authority of the medical establishment and the power of socially constructed norms to “prime” us to see issues of health and aging from certain points of view and not from others. Her descriptions of her own research studies and those of others read easily, like a novel.

The Healthy Aging Brain: Sustaining Attachment, Attaining Wisdom by Louis Cozolino, PhD. W.W. Norton, 2008

Cozolino provides a concise review of how brain structures are formed and matured through interactions with other people throughout the lifespan, and then explores how brain structures change, maintaining themselves, deteriorating, or even improving, as we age. Appendix Two is an excellent reading list of other books on successful aging.

The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, PhD. Sarah Crichton Books, 2009

Through the stories of her real-life 40 year old learners, Lightfoot raises important questions for our society as a whole, about schooling vs. learning, about diminishment vs. transformation, about retirement vs. re-engagement. Questions that, with the demographics and lengthening lifespan of the boomer cohort, simply won’t go away.


Bill Moyers has been a visionary television commentator and documentarian for more than 30 years. Bill Moyers Journal, now airs weekly on PBS on Friday evening. Video recordings and printed transcripts are free and easily downloadable here. I take a printed transcript with me every week to read sometime during that work week on a break.

Wisdom & inspiration direct to your inbox