Optimizing the Aging Brain, with Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D. | EDB 144

In this episode, Dr. Hackie Reitman speaks with author, psychiatrist, gerontologist, and Age Wave CEO & Founder Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D.

Over the past 35+ years, Dr. Ken Dychtwald has emerged as North America’s foremost visionary and original thinker regarding the lifestyle, marketing, health care, and workforce implications of the age wave. Ken is a psychologist, gerontologist, and best-selling author of 16 books on aging-related issues, including BodymindAge Wave: The Challenges and Opportunities of an Aging SocietyAge Power: How the 21st Century Will Be Ruled by the New OldThe Power Years: A User’s Guide to the Rest of Your LifeHealthy Aging; Workforce CrisisHow to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and TalentGideon’s Dream: A Tale of New Beginningsand, most recently, A New Purpose: Redefining Money, Family, Work, Retirement, and Success. He is currently writing a new book, Destiny Knocks: Lessons From an Irregular Life. He was the executive producer and host of the highly rated/acclaimed PBS documentary, The Boomer Century: 1946–2046.

Ken discusses the societal concepts of aging, basic things people can do to encourage brain health as they get older, and why socialization between the generations is so important. (27 minutes)

For more about Ken and Age Wave, visit: http://agewave.com/


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Speaking with Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D.

HACKIE REITMAN (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains, and today is a big thrill for me because we’re interviewing Ken Dychtwald, who’s like the world’s authority on something we all do, we is we all get older. It’s about aging. And he started Age Wave, and he’s been to the White House; he’s made documentaries; he’s written books. If you want to know about age and aging, which we all do, you ask this guy, who I know from about 53 years ago, but we’ll get into that. Ken Dychtwald, welcome to Exploring Different Brains.

KEN DYCHTWALD (KD): Great to be here with you, Hackie.

HR: Now, why don’t you introduce yourself properly because I probably butchered it quite a bit.

KD: No, you did a great job. I was born in 1950 in Newark, New Jersey, not too far from where you grew up. It is true you and I went to summer camp together when we were 15. I think we played on the same basketball team. I initially went to school to be a physicist but it was the late 60s, and I found myself more interested in the human potential movement and ultimately got my doctorate in psychology of the body but then in 1974 I was asked to head up the first preventive health research project for older people in North America, and so the idea was to see what effect things like yoga and Tai Chi and biofeedback and sensitivity training would have on people in their seventies and eighties and nineties, and the truth of it is is that I became absolutely captivated by older people and the aging process and over the past 40-almost-5 years now, I’ve been kind of neck deep in that field trying to figure out what are the ways to grow old healthy and purposefully, and what happens to our country and the world as more and more people like us live longer and longer lives and with declining birth rates, what happens when the whole world kind of tips the gravitational focus from young to old. So that’s been the focus of my work, and as you were kind enough to mention, I’ve given talks to about two and a half million people. I’ve met five presidents now. I’ve written 16 books, finishing a 17th, and tried my hand at filmmaking and still trying to figure it all out. Oh and by the way, and along the way, here’s the craziest thing: Along the way, I got older myself. Wasn’t expecting that. I don’t know how you feel about that.

HR: Well, one of us in this interview has hair and the other one looks like Shrek, so let the audience decide.

KD: We just figured out that we were born the same year, like a month apart, haven’t seen you in so long and frankly getting set to do this visit today, I thought, “Wow look what you’ve done man.” New England Golden Glove Champ. Went to medical school. Turned down a lucrative boxing offer as a young man you know, became an orthopedic legend, became interested in the mind, you know, charitable philanthropist. Went back in the ring in your 60s I’m thinking, “Wow.” Congratulations to you my friend.

HR: Boy, you’re a good PR agent.

KD: No, congratulations to you my friend.

HR: Well, thank you.

KD: What a life, what a life you’re living.

Maintaining health while aging

HR: You obviously have stayed very youthful, ok. What’s the single biggest thing when you speak and you talk to people that you emphasize the most?

KD: I know we’re living in an era where there’s supposed to be one answer, one thing, one single something. The honest truth is I think is there’s a few things that really matter the most. We’re doing research now all over the world with long lived people and we’ve asked them what’s the most important ingredient, and you think they’re going to say exercise or sleep or fitness or nutrition. It’s not what they say. They say it’s having people to love and being loved in exchange. That it’s relationships is a single most important ingredient in a healthy longevity, so let me start with that. Second, I’d say really taking good care of your equipment. You don’t just wake up at 76 and decide to go to the gym. The body is a complicated piece of work. Doing as good as you can. Not everybody can. My wife works out a couple hours a day. I don’t. You know, but making sure to keep your muscle tone, making sure to breathe deeply, making sure you keep your flexibility, making sure you stimulate and activate the mind. Really taking care of this body that we’re given, really important. And third, I would have to say purpose. I particularly come to appreciate this as I rounded my 60th birthday 8 years ago, that people who have, who get up in the morning, and there’s something that they want to do or there’s something they want to be have more spring in their step, more twinkle in their eye, even if they’re in a wheelchair. They just have more going on than people who just kind of give it up and move to the sidelines, so I think purpose is a critical ingredient in in aging well.

From success to significance

HR: You know, one of our board members for Different Brains, Lynne Wines, who’s a fantastic individual, has been CEO of a couple of banks, is on the bank board for Bank United, she went back to Harvard to do a fellowship in advanced leadership and now she’s finishing a master’s in public administration and policy and so forth at NYU, and she was just featured in Humans of New York, and she quoted you, I think, in the sense that, without giving you credit for it, but she told me it was from somebody she knew about through Harvard Business School or Harvard up there somewhere. And it was she used the words that I’ve seen you use when I was reading about you, “going from success to significance.” Elaborate on that a bit.

KD: Yeah first let me tell you where that thing popped up in my head or in my life and then I’ll comment on the program at Harvard, because I think it’s a good model for what you’re gonna see more of. So I don’t know how many years ago it was I was about to launch my something 12th book or something a book called The Power Years, and when you launch a book as you know you get all excited because you can hopefully get on talk shows in the morning shows and maybe get some media coverage, and instead what happened is there was a big storm. Katrina hit in New Orleans and so basically all book launches were just put to the sidelines. So I had all these weeks and I basically stayed home and with my kids and we watched Katrina, and I thought “Wow I mean this is a terrible thing happening. These people are not being helped and their homes are ruined and people are dying and it was just horrible, and we were all very thrown by the idea that we could be so callous as a country and not be right there loving and helping these people. So I decided that I was going to take all the earnings from that book and donate them to Habitat for Humanity for the rebuild of New Orleans. So I didn’t know if that would be a little bit of money or a lot of money but I just thought, you know what, the last chapter in that book was called Leaving a Legacy and I thought how can I look myself in the mirror or expect my kids to respect me if I don’t live what I say. So I called Jonathan Reckford who is the director of Habitat for Humanity and I knew Jonathan because I had built houses with President Carter, and I said, “Jonathan, just so you know I want to make this pledge and I think that we going to have a lot of work in New Orleans getting those people back on footing,” and he said to me, “Ken, you know, I know what you’re going through now. There’s a lot of people your age going through it.” That’s supposed to be my specialty, so I said to him “What are you talking about?” and he says “You know, you got that gnawing feeling.” and I said, “What gnawing feeling?” and he said “You know, you’re trying to make the transition from success to significance,” so it wasn’t a phrase that I cooked up; he laid it on me. I thought yeah, you know I’ve had a pretty good life you know. Not everything has worked out, but you reach a point in your life where you want to give back. You want to contribute.

You know I’ll tell you there’s a guy David Brooks. He’s a writer. He’s a conservative writer for the New York Times. He’s on PBS and NPR a lot. David wrote a piece about a year ago talking about your two resumes and by the way you normally when people want to talk about aging, they just want to talk about fitness and exercise. And I know, we’ll get there, but two resumes. One resume is your career resume: what you did, how much money you made, whether you were vice president, or you were a director or whatever, and the other is your eulogy resume, he said. And the eulogy resume is far more important. That’s what people are going to say about what kind of person you are. That’s going to be a short description of the life you lived and this success to significance thing, I think there’s more and more people that think of aging rather than thinking about it as a time of decline and loss and failure and going to the going to the trash heap, I think there’s a whole lot of people thinking these can be the most potent years of our lives. You may not be able to box like you did when you were 18, but you probably got a lot more wisdom and compassion and perspective and connections and you know what’s important, and less so. And success to significance, I’m honored that somebody would use that line because I wrote about it but it was laid on me by Jonathan Reckford, and I’ll add one other piece. So part of the problem is is that we are living in an era, Hackie, where everybody is expected to live maybe 70 years or so. So most people, and keep in mind throughout 99% of human history the average life expectancy was under 18 at birth, and I’m not making that up, that’s what’s so. When we signed our Declaration of Independence, you know, the life expectancy in America was 35. So there are very few 40 or 60 or 80 year olds. There are a few but not a lot. Most people died young, before they had got old enough to either have osteoarthritis or Alzheimer’s or even to have wisdom so we created an educational system that was designed to front load you, so you and I went to school, you went to college, you went to Boston University, I went to Lehigh to start, and the idea we thought then was we’re going to get trained and it’ll last us for life.

So back in college you saw young people and there was even this this lame comment “oh, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Now we’re finding, hey, if you’re going to live 100 or so years maybe we’ll go back to school at 50, learn how to play the guitar at 70. Maybe you’re running your first marathon when you’re 90. Maybe you fall in love when you’re 55, and so that idea is beginning to manifest in interesting ways, so maybe I don’t know, 10-15 years ago, two wonderful people David Gergen and Rosabeth Moss Kanter, both professors at the Kennedy School at Harvard, decided they would do an experiment and they created a program called the Center for Advanced Leadership. And the idea of this program at Harvard which takes I don’t know if it’s a year or two, is that people who have been massively powerful and successful who are retired, come back to college, and they specifically learn how to change the world from a not-for-profit point of view. And that’s the focus. Not to make money and not to be a big shot, but what do you need to know in order to change the world. And that program, the Center for Advanced Leadership, there’s now a similar one at Stanford, and community colleges are beginning to create programs all around the country so that older adults can go back to school, not only for their own enjoyment, but can learn how to hone their chops or learn new technology or learn how to volunteer with kids or learn how to teach young people things that they may have learned in their lives. So I’m a big fan of things like that. I think it’s positive. I think it’s very positive stuff.

HR: It’s an excellent history. You know, as we evolve, we’re coming to grips with all of this. I remember back when I was boxing. I turned pro at 38, and I had a good string going, and then I was in my 40s, and George Vessie from The New York Times did like three feature articles. One of them we coined with the word, well I don’t think we coined it, but it was ageism. This was back in the 90s where we were really just starting to not discriminate as much against “older people” and everything. And now the whole paradigm’s been shifted. When I first graduated medical school in 1974, our commencement speaker was Isaac Asimov.

KD: I think he had those big mutton chop sideburns.

HR: And he was a great scientist and a great thinker. And the two things that he said that I remember that when great discoveries are made, it’s not somebody laboring intensely in a laboratory going “Eureka, I found it!” it’s somebody looking through a scope or something going, “Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder what that is. Let’s look into it,” but the other thing that resonated that I kind of put together with the first thing was basically saying that we were not going to do what we should do, which is, and it’s 1974: “You’re not preparing for how society is going to change, because everyone’s going to be old,” and this was back in 74, as a society. And now it’s 2018; it’s however many years later. 40, 50 years, whatever it is and I’m sitting here talking to Ken Dychtwald who is, has been really a visionary in this and in getting it done and getting it on our main menu, so let’s go now from the individual, what the individual does, to society in general. As far as the individual goes, there’s a TED Talk on the study I’m sure you’re familiar with, the Harvard 75 Year Longitudinal Study, which showed that as you said, strong social relationships blow everything out of the water. And we’re finding that very, very difficult now, so address this now, with society as a whole, with the importance of strong relationships, how you see how we’re doing as a world now and where we should be going.

Socialization and independence 

KD: Yeah I’d like to I’m going to be honest with you since we’re old camp buddies. Yeah, I don’t think we’re doing so well to be honest with you. What I see is that we’re segmenting ourselves out by generations. If you ask people who their best friends are and then ask him to tell you the age of their best friends, they’re all going to be pretty close to their age we don’t have a lot of 30 year olds hanging with 60 year olds or 80 year olds mentoring 27 year olds. We need more of that. So I’m a believer that we’re all better when the fabric of the generations is woven together. A good buddy of mine just launched a book this week. It’s called Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, guy named Chip Connoley who created the Joie de Vivre hotel chain and then was brought in by these young tech guys to make sense of Air B&B and they turned it into the biggest hospitality brand in the world, and what he found was that his maturity was only in his fifties, was like considered real, like you know, gray-haired stuff, and these young kids wanted it. They wanted to know what he had learned in his life. How he made decisions and he wanted to learn from them about tech and how they thought, so A: I think we’re better when the generations are are coming together.

The other thing is that I think after World War II, I don’t know when where you grew up, the neighborhood you grew up in, but until I was 5 we lived in the same house with my grandparents, and up in the attic there was a boarder. She was a woman, came through the living room and into the other room, and then this idea came along after World War II that the American dream meant that everybody should have their own house. Every child should have their own bedroom. Everybody should have their own car and that’s become even more extreme, because now everybody’s got their own entertainment device and their own Instagram account and their own you know friendship network, and so in an odd way, we separated people out. There’s a lot more individualism going on in this country and so when I look at the aging population right now, over the age of 75 half of our country who’s in that age group lives alone, I don’t know. You’ve got a lot of older people who are really alone and they’re disconnected and they don’t have someone to care about, or to care for, and their kids may live a thousand miles away. Wouldn’t we be better off if we maybe had more communes? If we could couple three people share a house together, if we had what’s called the village approach which is: I knock on your door, I say, “Hey if you ever want me to watch your dog or take you to the doctor that’s fine, you can babysit my kids,” you know trying to reweave the fabric between people. I don’t mean this, I become a little more, I’m looking at your gloves.

I’ve been a little bit more willing to take the gloves off these last years in my own career because I feel kind of a sense of urgency, you know. When you hit 68, I realize I may only have 50 more Summers or I may only have one more summer. I don’t know, you know? But you start to think about the time you have and I think a lot of people who are older complain that they’re marginalized by society but I think what’s equally true is they marginalize themselves. If you don’t know how to use tech, if you don’t understand why Kanye West is so fascinating to people, if you haven’t watched This is America and understand you know, what he’s trying to do, if you don’t understand why young people are more comfortable with racial and ethnic and sexual diversity, you’re packing yourself into the past. And so to remain current as an older person you got work to do. You got to relate to young people. You got to listen to them. You can’t always be judging them from your point of view and thinking that your life was the better one so there’s a lot more this weaving together that I think we’d all benefit from. And, as you say, Hack, be good for us, would stimulate our minds. It would give us a sense of what to do and how to dress and where to go and what to listen to. It would make us all be more alive if we had more of this multi-generational connection and the last thing I’ll say is that it’s amazing that you heard a speech in 1974 where the word ageism was used because it’s just be coming around the bend these last few years. I’d like to say that we’ve gotten over ageism but you know in front of older people a lot I still see people making fun of older people a lot, I still see, you look at America now and all the performers are usually under the age of 30. How come there aren’t any 70 or 80 year olds? Then it’s always, “Oh, we got the singing grandma.” Just because she’s an older woman doesn’t mean she can’t hammer it. You know and people still want to dye their hair to look young, and you know we got this whole fixation with “young is better than old” and I’ll give you one story from a wiser person than me I have a few decades ago and Betty Freedan came out with a book The Fountain of Age, she had written The Feminine Mystique in 1963. She was a tough gal that I spent a lot of time on the road doing speeches together, and one night I said to Betty, I said, “So when you wrote The Feminine Mystique, what were you thinking?” and she said, “I thought the time to come that women no longer be judged by the metric of men: how they can satisfy their man or how they could be as good as a man. That era’s over. It’s time that women be judged by the metric of women. Maybe we should start judging men by the metric of women to see if they’re kind and thoughtful and caring enough,” and so I said to her, “What was the deal when you wrote The Fountain of Age?” and she says, you know, “We measure older people by the metric of youth. Are you as good looking as a young person? Can you move as fast as a young person? Are you as cool with tech as a young person?” she said, “Maybe we should measure older people by the metric of wisdom and experience and perspective and wouldn’t that be a good thing?”

I still think we tilt a lot more in this country towards young as good, old as not-so-good, and with all due respect when you first started this interview, you told me I was looking very youthful. That’s an interesting thing, because if I saw you and haven’t seen you for a while, and I said to you, “Hackie, man, you’re looking so young,” you’d probably say “Thank you,” but if I say, “Hack, man boy do you look old,” you’d be insulted by that. Why? Because we think old is a put down. We think old is what you don’t want to be, and so this ageism is so pernicious, we often don’t even realize it when we’re doing it. I think we need to come to sort of an age neutral world. We need to, we all need to come together more and, “What are you interested in? How can I be of help to you? How can I understand you better? How can you know my mind? How can I know your mind and how did we, by coming together make a better mosaic of it?

HR: You know, that’s a very, very, very interesting perspective, and this comes at a time when all of our measurements are in evolution now. And superimposed on that we have the breakdown of the original model you were talking about, the intergenerational model was when we had the great migrations and people came over and lived on the east side of New York and you had grandparents with grandchildren and everybody, cousins all around and now I just took a job in Minneapolis and you’re all alone and it’s tough, and I think that the isolation problem as we go on and mature is getting more and more difficult.

KD: And I think it’s a bad thing. I read a study recently it’s something like spending your time alone is like twice as negative an impact on your health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. That, I was in London a couple of months ago and they now have a Ministry of Loneliness, Minister of Loneliness because they feel like this lonely the thing is becoming an epidemic, that people are so disconnected and we don’t support each other enough and we’re not aware of our neighbors. That, you know history is about course correction. I was leading a focus group a few years ago and there was a guy in the group, an older guy that been on the Apollo mission, That amazing trip up into space, and he explained how they had plotted that thing out for years before the missile went up, but 90% of the time it was off course and so the whole exercise of the Apollo mission was course correcting. I think it’s the same with our lives, you know. Just because you haven’t exercised for 10 years doesn’t mean you can’t start walking again. Just because we’ve gotten a little too far apart as humans doesn’t mean we can’t come back together. So I think that this course correction model allows us to stop and think. I think it’s partly why you’re doing this program, Hack. You want everybody to be thinking about having a little more regard for other folks who may be different than them.

HR: Ken, it’s been so great to have you here. Please tell our audience how they find out more about you.

KD: Sure. My company’s website is www.AgeWave.com. One word, agewave.com, and that’s sort of a portal into all the things we’re doing, all the media, all the projects we’re working, on easy to find.

HR: Ken, it’s been a pleasure to have you here at Exploring Different Brains. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule and thanks for everything you’re doing.

KD: Great to be with you. Great to see you again after all these years as well.