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Cultivate More Stress! Really!

By Shlomo Maital

Tiger Woods is one of the world’s greatest golfers ever, in a league with Palmer, Niklaus, Snead, and Bobby Jones.  He has had personal problems, a messy divorce, back injuries, surgery, and lately hasn’t made the first cut in tournaments.

     Woods was stopped by police, in his car, near his home in Florida, and failed a breathalyzer test. But he had no alcohol in his blood. He had simply taken tranquilizers and fallen asleep; he took enough of them, so that he could not walk a straight line.

     Let’s get this straight. No game has more stress than golf. That final putt? Make it and you win a major. Miss it and you finish second or third – not good. Stress? You bet. Yet doctors have doped up Tiger with Xanax (a blockbuster tranquilizer, making billions for Pfizer), Vicoden, Vioxx and who knows what else. Was he taking Xanax while playing? If so – no wonder he missed the cut.

       Be clear – Xanax is a wonder drug for those who suffer extreme anxiety attacks. Yet it is according to US Food and Drug the most abused tranquilizer, prescribed for millions who do not need it. Why? Because we’ve been taught by Big Pharma and others, that stress is harmful, terrible, to be avoided at all costs, by popping a pill. So pop away…. and help that bottom line of Pfizer.

         I argue here that we need more stress, not less. What is stress? Stress is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.”   Simply put — We have an unsolved problem, and it bothers us.   Let’s redefine stress.   “…a challenge, that when we solve it (not if), boosts our self-esteem, self-efficacy and our sense of wellbeing”.   Need a pill for that? No. You need to take on the challenge and crack it. Creativity is widening the range of choices. To meet unsolved problems, we can come up a large range of possible solutions. Zoom in, pick one – and go for it. Sometimes you will fail.   That’s part of life. Sometimes you’ll succeed. But if you Xanax the stress, you’ll never get even the chance to succeed.   When you tackle a stressful state, you change your mental outlook from anxiety to action….it’s that simple.

         And – keep in practice. Purposely seek out hard things to do every day, and do them, and feel good about it.   This is super-important for us seniors. It is so easy to pamper yourself, when you’re over 65, just because you have grey hair. Why? Take on challenges. Your body may not be as strong, but your mind sure is.

         Do not be manipulated by Big Pharma.   Welcome stress. Cultivate it. Tackle those big challenges – and crack them.   You can do it.  Popping a Xanax smothers the stress, temporarily, but doesn’t deal with it. It’s not a solution.  

Superager: Start Now!

By Shlomo Maital


   Writing in the International New York Times, Lisa Barrett draws our attention to research on “superagers” – people 65 or older who have remained mentally sharp. Her own research at Mass General defines superagers as those whose cognitive abilities “is actually on a par with healthy active 25-year-olds”.   With dementia besetting up to half of those 80 and over, this is important work. And for me, 74, it is highly relevant – full of action items.

     Barrett cites research by Marsel Mesulam and colleagues, at Northwestern University and University of Chicago.* Here are the main findings:

       “The SuperAgers’ cerebral cortex was significantly thicker than their healthy age-matched peers and displayed no atrophy compared to the 50- to 65-year-old healthy group. Unexpectedly, a region of left anterior cingulate cortex was significantly thicker in the SuperAgers than in both elderly and middle-aged controls. Our findings identify cognitive and neuroanatomical features of a cohort that appears to resist average age-related changes of memory capacity and cortical volume.”

     Barrett explains this result. The crucial regions of the brain were “in emotional regions”…not just the cognitive regions. How to stimulate them?

     “These brain regions have an intriguing property. When they increase in activity, you tend to feel pretty bad – tired, symied, frustrated. …the Marine Corps has a motto that embodies this principle: ‘Pain is weakness leaving your body’.   The discomfort of exertion means you’re building muscle and discipline. Superagers are like Marines. They excel at pushing past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort. The result is a more youthful brain…”.

     So here is the lesson, not only for seniors but for all of us. Engage in “intense effort”, push yourself from time to time. Do it sometime just for the exercise. Push through the discomfort. And recognize that in doing so, you’re not only building your biceps, but also your lateral prefrontal cortex (where, by the way, ideas are born, and imagination flourishes).  

       In short: Even if you are older, even if those around you spoil you because you have grey hair, even if young people offer you seats on the bus or train…   do NOT spoil yourself. It’s so easy to do so. Do NOT pamper yourself. It’s tempting to do so. Go that extra mile, do that extra rep.   And by the way – don’t just sit around doing Sudoku puzzles either. It takes more than that.  

       Thanks, Dr. Barrett. We’re starting right now.

“Superior Memory and Higher Cortical Volumes in Unusually Successful Cognitive Aging,” by Theresa M. Harrison, Sandra Weintraub, M.-Marsel Mesulam, and Emily Rogalski ,      J. Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2012    Nov; 18(6): 1081–1085.



On Turning 74: How to Age

By Shlomo Maital


     On Nov. 10 I will be 74 years old. I celebrated by doing a 74-km. (44 mile) walk during 3 days, from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee, with grandchildren and sons and daughter, and Sharona, who joined for at least part of it.

     Here are some insights about growing old, for what they are worth.

  • Try to do one difficult thing every day…   it’s easy to pamper yourself, when you’re a senior citizen, and lots of kind people around you are willing to help. Keep in practice doing things that stretch your mental and physical abilities. That way, at least you won’t slide backward… or will do so more slowly.
  • Resist becoming a child. Seniors are forgiven behaviors that adults are not. Resist it. It’s easy to become grumpy and spoiled like a child.
  • Treat your body like a faithful old car. You don’t expect a 15-year-old car to run perfectly. You do good maintenance, but not all repairs are worth the pain, time and effort.       Same with your body. Fix what you can, live with what you can’t… and don’t spend infinite hours running to doctors, if you can avoid it.
  • Remain relevant. That means, make your life meaningful by helping other people whom you love. Do this daily. In little ways, or in big ways. If you do, it means that your life has meaning, and that others care. The key is to be part of a loving community, including family and friends.
  • New beginnings – seek them. Seniors tend to be risk averse. Take some chances. Dare.   What do you have to lose? Learn new skills, try new things. Try new foods.
  • Think positive. Think happy. A happy mind definitely helps create a healthy body. It’s been proven physiologically. Find the bright side. Be an incurable optimist.
  • Enjoy every hour, every minute, every day. Find things of beauty, find small (and big) ways to enjoy. Find interesting people, find ways to be with them. Make sure that when you wake, you have strong reasons to get out of bed. If not, well, find some.
  • Doing what you love? Keep doing it.  Never retire.  Bored with what you’re doing?  Find something else to do.   But — keep doing!!



No Money & Late Start: Go for It!

By Shlomo Maital

Saatva Ron Rudzin


The International New York Times’ Dealbook section today (June 3) tells about Ron Rudzin, who worked in the furniture business from the age of 16, becoming VP of national sales for a sofa company. When he left Jennifer Furniture, he decided to start his own business. His vision: Sell American-made high-quality coil-based mattresses online, for a fraction of the cost of the price retailers charged for store-based brands.

     Saatva means “truth” in Sanskrit. It became profitable after its first three months,   in 2010.   Sales were $2 m. in 2011, and $76 million in 2015.   In 2018 Rudzin projects sales of $275 million.

     What do we learn? First,   becoming an entrepreneur can be done as a second career, after a long first career.   That way, you start a business with substantial domain knowledge and contacts, which very young entrepreneurs often lack.

       Second – bootstrap. Rudzin took $350,000 of his own money, wrote a business plan in 2007 and began to form his online mattress company.

   “People who raise money, rather than be self-funded, tend to spend wildly because it’s other people’s money and they throw a bunch of stuff on the wall and see what sticks. I don’t do it that way,” Rudzin said. “I might go a little slower but in the end I believe I win.”  It took him from 2007 and a business plan to 2010 to launch.  Slow and steady wins the race.

     Bootstrap, and start late. It’s possible, because chances are, when you retire, you can scrape together a not-insignificant sum of savings. Start late, because when you do, you will know a lot more about the industry in which you want to be an entrepreneur. You can spend 20-30 years just identifying a need and an opportunity and validating it.

     Rudzin’s company provides full service – experts install the mattress, a service that buyers love. He knew this was key, because of his industry experience. Not everyone would have that insight.

   Boostrapping enables you to retain control of your destiny.   When you use VC funding, after initial, A and B rounds, the founder often has his shares so diluted that the VC controls the Board – and can fire the founder and boot him out. This has happened a lot. It even happened to Steve Jobs.

   People in the future are going to live a lot longer. So we seniors should consider entrepreneurship as a possibility for a 2nd or 3rd career. Gray-haired entrepreneurs can change the world, even if they use canes and hearing aids.      

Is Aging (and Everything) a Matter of Mindfulness?

By Shlomo Maital

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Ellen Langer is a Harvard University psychologist who 25 years ago published a landmark book on “Mindfulness” – defined as “”the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present …”. In other words: Being here, in the ‘now’, not in the past, and not in the future.

   Lately, attention has returned to her work, with results showing that it can halt ‘aging’ and perhaps even…. cure cancer?

   An Oct. 22 New York Times article reports:

   “ In one [study], she found that nursing-home residents who had exhibited early stages of memory loss were able to do better on memory tests when they were given incentives to remember — showing that in many cases, indifference was being mistaken for brain deterioration. In another, now considered a classic of social psychology, Langer gave houseplants to two groups of nursing-home residents. She told one group that they were responsible for keeping the plant alive and that they could also make choices about their schedules during the day. She told the other group that the staff would care for the plants, and they were not given any choice in their schedules. Eighteen months later, twice as many subjects in the plant-caring, decision-making group were still alive than in the control group.”

     Langer feels that “what [sick] people needed to heal themselves was a psychological “prime” — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself.” In 1981, She tried to show this with a group of older men told to reminisce about what they were like 22 years ago.

     “The men in the experimental group were told not merely to reminisce about this earlier era, but to inhabit it — to “make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years ago,” she told the NYT. “We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this,” Langer told the men, “you will feel as you did in 1959.” From the time they walked through the doors, they were treated as if they were younger. The men were told that they would have to take their belongings upstairs themselves, even if they had to do it one shirt at a time.” The study was called the Counter Clockwise study.

     What were the results????

     “Each day, as they discussed sports (Johnny Unitas and Wilt Chamberlain) or “current” events (the first U.S. satellite launch) or dissected the movie they just watched (“Anatomy of a Murder,” with Jimmy Stewart), they spoke about these late-’50s artifacts and events in the present tense — one of Langer’s chief priming strategies. Nothing — no mirrors, no modern-day clothing, no photos except portraits of their much younger selves — spoiled the illusion that they had shaken off 22 years.”

     “At the end of their stay, the men were tested again. On several measures, they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce. They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told [the NYT reporter], had “put their mind in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.”

       I’ll soon turn 72. I believe Prof. Langer. I believe that what you believe about your age, your aging, and your body, is close to what is. We seniors do not have to accept what society decrees – that we are retired, irrelevant, marginal, ill, feeble, forgetful and of little use to anyone. It’s time for a Grey Revolution…and Ellen Langer is providing the ammunition.



Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital