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AGEISM VS. The Power of the Aging Brain

Updated: 23 hours ago




On February 21st, 2024, I gave a 'commencement style' speech for an audience ages 70-93. Below is the full transcript. View Recorded Video.


"Welcome to Ageism versus the Power of the Aging Brain!


Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed residents, graduates, and distinguished guests,


34 years ago, I never would have sung in front of an audience, let alone stand up here today wearing commencement regalia and presenting with confidence before you now- 


I want to begin with a round of applause for the power of our aging brains. 


Thank you for granting me the privilege of addressing you today. 


I wish you a Happy Lunar New Year, the Year of the Dragon,

and a very Happy Birthday! Cheers! 


Commencement, Birthdays, and the Lunar New Year share a symbolic kinship, marking the beginning of transformative journeys of growth, chapters of Time, inviting fresh starts, and the promise of new opportunities. 


Is Aging the same as Living?


What do you think of the term "anti-aging"? 


How do you feel telling people your age?


Have you ever witnessed someone being treated unfairly because of their age? 


Have you ever been treated unfairly because of your age? 

How did it make you feel? 


Ageism refers to how we think (stereotypes), (prejudice), feel, and act (discrimination) toward others according to age, and ageism affects people of all ages. 


Ageism is Everywhere. 


Ageism seems to be just as common as plastic. The more you begin to notice it, the more you realize it is everywhere. 


Globally, one in two people hold ageist beliefs and in Europe, ageism is more prevalent against younger than older adults.


In summer 2018, aged 15, Greta Thunberg held the first "School Strike for Climate" outside the Swedish parliament. The protest was widely covered, and hundreds of thousands of young people across the world joined her Fridays For Future strikes. Ms Thunberg has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year between 2019 and 2023.


In 2019, she became the youngest-ever Time Person of the Year. Greta has mobilized millions of people of all ages to ACT Now; 

there is no Planet B. 


"What does she know? She is just a kid."


Ageism is prevalent in our institutions, policies, programs, organizations, companies, cities, our relationships with each other and in our 'ageist against oneself.' 


"60 is the new 30"

"You look young for your age"

"You are aging me now"

"We are old people..."


Ageism is associated with:

-Poorer physical and mental health

-Increased social isolation and loneliness.

-Greater financial insecurity

-Decreased quality of life and premature death


The U.S. anti-aging market was valued at US$ 17.92 billion in 2022 and is predicted to hit over US$ 34.11 billion by 2032.


"They" are coming after ALL our wrinkles. 


I've been pondering our lifespan as a progression of 12-year increments–like the Chinese Zodiac. 


Think for a moment about your own development and growth from the moment you were born to age 12. 


Now, think about your development and growth from age 24 to 36. 


From 24-36

WOW


Imagine,

at 36, I shed most of my material belongings and moved to Big Sur, California, where I did not know a soul, at an age when my peers were getting married, buying houses, having children. 


Today I am 47 and on March 13th I will turn 48. The journey from age 48 to 60 feels somehow shorter, yes, and much more profound. I live with more intention than before and my tolerance for "that which no longer serves me" has shortened. I am fueled by passion, and my vision with a mission at age 36 has come full circle: I feel an urgency like none before. 


Contrary to stereotypes, our aging brains forge a wealth of cognitive strengths. 


Did you know that our brains reach their peak of information processing capacities between the ages of sixty and eighty?


As Dr. Gene Cohen's, author of The Mature Mind and the Postive Power of the Aging Brain

"Older brains are simply more experienced, but also more creative," 


Ever heard of Kentucky Fried Chicken?

At age 5 his Father died," begins the story. At age 16 he quit school. At age 17 he had already lost four jobs. At age 18 he got married. He joined the army and washed out there. At age 20 his wife left him and took their baby. He became a cook in a small cafe and convinced his wife to return home. At age 65 he retired. He felt like a failure & decided to commit suicide. He sat writing his will, but instead, he wrote what he would have accomplished with his life & thought about how good of a cook he was. So he borrowed $87 fried up some chicken using his recipe, went door to door to sell. At age 88 Colonel Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) Empire was a billionaire."

Laura Ingalls Wilder embarked on writing "Little House on the Prairie" when she reached the age of 65.


Estelle Getty, after enduring years of relatively limited success as an actress, gained widespread recognition at the age of 63 for her role as Sophia in the television series "The Golden Girls."


Grandma Moses, the American folk artist whose works were showcased at the MoMA in New York and featured on the cover of Time in 1953, didn't commence her painting journey until she reached the age of 77.


Yuichiro Miura accomplished the feat of becoming the oldest person to summit Mount Everest at the age of 80 in 2014 and expressed a desire to attempt the climb again at the age of 90.


Smoky Dawson, recognized as Australia's inaugural cowboy and a trailblazer in Western music, achieved the distinction of being the oldest individual to compose, record, and release a new album at the age of 92.


Harriette Thompson, a cancer survivor, initiated her marathon running journey at 76 years old and, at the age of 91, completed her 15th marathon, securing the position as the second-oldest marathon runner in U.S. history.


Yet, despite the wealth of evidence supporting the power of the aging brain, ageism remains a pervasive global phenomenon. The most socially accepted 'ism' on planet earth. 


Why???

Is Ageism a New Phenomenon? 


In the mid-19th century, a shift occurred in American society, leading to a growing preoccupation with age. Over the next century and a half, this focus institutionalized age, creating distinct divisions among age groups. 


Before this change, age held little significance, with many individuals unaware of their birthdates and classrooms accommodating a wide age range, from 2-year-olds to 25-year-olds, and colonial colleges admitting students as young as 14.


Age Segregation is the fuel that powers Ageism. 


Age Segregation diminishes opportunities for intergenerational interactions, fostering stereotypes and misconceptions about different age groups.


"OK Boomer!" you follow? 


Our ancestors recognized the value of accumulated wisdom, making the oldest among them revered figures. These societies flourished in the richness of shared experiences across generations, promoting collective well-being. 


Collective Wellbeing, Societies nurturing Reciprocity, more of this please...


Psychologist Erik Erickson argued that the Western fear of aging keeps us from living whole lives. 


"Lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole of life" –Erik Erickson


Are You ready to be a Good Ancestor? 


"let us be the ancestors our descendants will thank."

–Winona LaDuke 


We are ALL Aging in a climate-changing world; biodiversity is rapidly dwindling (with a staggering 70% of plant and animal species extinct in the last 50 years), both older and younger Americans are grappling with poverty at unprecedented levels, and technology hurtles forward at a pace that outstrips our ethical and moral considerations.


Theme song to the Twilight Zone Series: 

"You are traveling to another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. Welcome to the Twilight Zone."


As I stand here today, I can't help but wonder:

Are we living in a tangible reality, or is it all just an illusion? 

AI anyone? 


It's a question that echoes the prescient themes of George Orwell's iconic 1984 (published in 1949), reminiscent of the thought-provoking narratives found in the original Twilight Zone series (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1963-1965) . Perhaps you've even seen the chilling movie Soylent Green (released in 1973).

I have. 


And as we navigate the 2020s, it feels like we're living in a fusion of these dystopian visions. The challenges we face mirror the cautionary tales of the past, urging us to reflect on the path we forge for our future.


The Blue Zones have gone mainstream, thanks in large part the the Netflix series. Dan Buetnner, who coined the term, found the oldest,

healthiest and happiest humans among us: 

-Move naturally every 20min

-They live in towns built for humans, not just cars

-They walk, walk, and walk

-They live, work, and play in nature rich with biodiversity and have high levels of nature connectedness

-They embrace age-integration

-They grow gardens, 

As Dan Buettner say, 

"they live rewardingly inconvenient lives


They live with a sense of purpose and meaning, what the Japanese call Ikigai, not just hobbies and activities, but they live for a purpose greater than themselves; they live with a responsibility for their community and future generations.  


A recent study published by the Barcelona Brain Health Initiative showed for the 1st time in healthy people, purpose in life promotes resilience to brain damage. 


My Ikigai, my purpose, as I enter age 48 next month, is stronger than ever, and it will continue to grow, 


As we stand at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, may we reevaluate the narratives surrounding aging. 


May we dismantle ageist biases and integrate the strengths of each life stage,

from ages 1-108, nurturing a focus on interdependence, not independence. 


I inspire you and all ages to ignite the power of our aging brains and forge an age-integrated and nature-inspired future that honors the diversity and richness of human-human and human-nature experience. 


Your Brain on Aging = 


Relativistic Thinking emerges, allowing us to synthesize disparate views and appreciate the relativity of truths. 


Non-dualistic thinking follows, enabling us to consider opposing views without judgment and cultivate empathy. 


Systematic Thinking completes the trio, empowering us to think big picture and embrace divergent perspectives.


Embracing these thinking styles unlocks heightened levels of intelligence, creativity, empathy, and wisdom—essential skills for thriving in today's complex world. 


This revolutionary perspective reshapes the conversation around aging and performance. 


It's no longer a matter of what we can do despite our age; 

it's about the incredible potential we unleash because of our age.


And there's another myth to dismantle—the belief that aging is solely a physical process. 


As Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer wisely stated, 


"Aging is as much a mental event as a physical process.


The Ohio Longitudinal Study on Aging and Retirement reinforces this, revealing that a positive mindset toward aging can translate into an extra eight years of healthy longevity.


Consider the staggering impact: changing your mindset toward aging proves as influential on longevity as quitting smoking and even surpasses the effects of losing weight, irrespective of body mass. 


Treating individuals in their later years, including ourselves, with negative stereotypes has direct consequences. 


Research by Yale University psychologist Becca Levy demonstrates that exposure to age-related negativity in earlier decades leads to a thirty percent greater decline in memory by the time individuals reach their sixties.


"Hey, don't get Ageist on me!" note to self 

"Don't be agiest on yourself!"


May we challenge Ageism in all its forms, from over-the-hill birthday cards to 

"You look so young for your age"


And Celebrate and honor the transformative power of our aging brains, fostering a society that values the diverse strengths inherent in every stage of life. 


WE Need YOU! 

This isn't about me.

This isn't even about you.

This is about US!

All Ages On Deck!


Congratulations to the graduates, the birthdays, and celebrating another trip around the Sun. Whoot whoot, and cheers to embracing the full spectrum of human experience.

Thank you.


REFERENCES

Abellaneda-Pérez, K., Cattaneo, G., Cabello-Toscano, M., Solana-Sánchez, J., Mulet-Pons, L., Vaqué-Alcázar, L., ... & Bartrés-Faz, D. (2023). Purpose in life promotes resilience to age-related brain burden in middle-aged adults. Alzheimer's Research & Therapy15(1), 1-11.

 

Blanco López, Estefanía. "Critical Discourse Analysis: The Rhetoric of Female Political Activism in the 21st Century. Yousafzai, Thunberg and Ocasio-Cortez." 2020,  https://core.ac.uk/download/389430720.pdf.

 

Erikson, E. H., Erikson, J. M., & Kivnick, H. Q. (1994). Vital involvement in old age. WW Norton & Company.

 

Cohen, G. D. (2005). The mature mind: The positive power of the aging brain. Basic Books (AZ).

 

Mintz, S. (2023, March 21). Age Consciousness, Age Segregation, and Age Denigration. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/higher-ed-gamma/age-consciousness-age-segregation-and-age-denigration


Moon, C., (2019). The Mindset of Eco and Social Entrepreneurs: Piloting a New Measure of 'Sustainability Mindset'. European Conference on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, 686-690.

 

The Verge. (2016, July 5). The real story of Colonel Sanders is far crazier than this bland inspirational meme. https://www.theverge.com/2016/7/5/12096466/colonel-sanders-kfc-meme-life-story

 

 







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