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Oliver Sacks On Growing Older

Best-selling author Oliver Sacks tell us why he’s delighted to turn 80, and finds joy in growing older.

Oliver Sacks (Elena Seibert)

Oliver Sacks (Elena Seibert)

“What a drag it is getting old,” sang the Rolling Stones, back in the day.  Oliver Sacks begs to differ.

The best-selling neurologist-author turned 80 last week.  And he’s loving it.  More leisure.  More freedom.  Freedom of time.  Freedom of mind, heart, soul.

He can’t lift 600 pounds anymore, the way he did as a young body-builder in California.  And he knows death comes closer, of course.  But old age has not turned out grim for this famed thinker and writer.  It’s fun.

This hour, On Point:  Oliver Sacks on the joy of old age.

- Tom Ashbrook


Oliver Sacks, physician and best-selling author. Professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine. His op-ed in the New York Times is “The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)” His book “Hallucinations” was just released in paperback. (@oliversacks)

Louise Aronson, professor of geriatrics at University of California, San Francisco, where she directs the Northern California Geriatric Education Center. (@louisearonson)

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times: The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.) — “Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over. My mother was the 16th of 18 children; I was the youngest of her four sons, and almost the youngest of the vast cousinhood on her side of the family. I was always the youngest boy in my class at high school. I have retained this feeling of being the youngest, even though now I am almost the oldest person I know.”

Smithsonian: Being a lifelong bookworm may keep you sharp in old age — “To keep their bodies running at peak performance, people often hit the gym, pounding away at the treadmill to strengthen muscles and build endurance. This dedication has enormous benefitsbeing in shape now means warding off a host of diseases when you get older. But does the brain work in the same way? That is, can doing mental exercises help your mind stay just as sharp in old age?”


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  • 2Gary2

    I guess pretending that being old is fun is better than facing the reality that growing older sucks. There are not any hot babes in the nursing home.  At least men age way better than woman.

    • Wm_James_from_Missouri

      Right-on Gary! Growing old stinks ! (As do many of the aging.) : ) : ) : )

      Support any and every effort to end the curse of aging.

      Life Extension Foundation


      Alcor Life Extension Foundation

      Sens Research Foundation

      Methuselah Foundation

      (A favorite “Wild Man” of mine) (watch the video) Aubrey de Grey

      Undoing aging: You won’t regret watching this, Gary.

      Note: If people like Ray Kurzweil are correct in saying that there will be 25,000 times more “progress or innovation in the 21st century as there was in the 20th century, it is hard for me to understand why so many people are clinging to such negativity.

      ‘Mind upload’ digital immortality by 2045’


      • Expanded_Consciousness

        Is your uploaded mind you or a disembodied xerox copy? Reality or Memorex? I think it is just a type of clone, but not me. 

        Most futurists put breakthroughs they rapturously anticipate about 30 years out (so that they are still alive and can experience it). It is almost a type of fallacy.

        • Wm_James_from_Missouri

          You know, I do agree with you to a certain extent about putting the wanted breakthroughs out at distance. I truly feel that we are NOT progressing FAST enough. There are too many with excess money that are doing nothing to advance civilization, while there are others, that would move us forward but have no cash. Then we have the problem of institutional molasses, as in, slow as… . A rethink of how we prioritize our pooled government assets could solve many of these problems. Example, we constantly talk about the “debt“, but rarely talk about the things we spend money on, except in very general terms. We need politician that will address SPECIFIC INVENTIONS and a large number of them, at that !

    • margbi

       If men age better than women, why are there so few of them compared to women of older age? 

      • Don_B1

        @2Gary2:disqus @margbi:disqus @Wm_James_from_Missouri:disqus 

        I guess it depends on the definition (what doesn’t?) of the word (here ‘better’):

        Apparently those men who do live beyond the “average” age are generally in better health than the women who do live longer, even with debilitating diseases.

        In other words, a lot of men die “early” because of bad health while those who have good health (no debilitating chronic diseases) live longer. Thus some (!) might consider men’s end days, whenever they occur, as “better.” Maybe it is just that men, while stoic, suffer pain less well?

      • brettearle


        But you likely know that he was speaking of physical appeal.

        And yet I can’t help wondering if that perception, of physical appeal, is through a Machismo Prism.

        • margbi

          I agree, he was probably speaking of appearance but I question whether old men are any more presentable than old women if your definition of presentable is “hot babe.”

          • brettearle

             Hence, the reason why I said that such an observation is through a ‘Machismo Prism’.

          • margbi

             Touche to you!

      • 2Gary2

         I guess men have the good sense to die before really getting bad.

        • margbi

          It would seem that everyone wants to live a long time but no one wants to get old. I don’t know how old you are but I’ll bet your desire to live will kick in no matter what.

          • 2Gary2

             47 and I am sure your correct

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    I imagine the joy in growing older and old is the joy of mastery over life. Even if physical powers diminish and ailments accrue, the patterns of life are more familiar and one knows how to handle people better. Also, certain old goals and pressures dissolve, and new and rewarding interests can replace them.

    • LinRP

      Half way through, huh? Very interesting that you know when your expiration date will come. You are surely the only person on the planet who knows that with any specificity.

      This is the reality for the rest of us…Death, my death, is certain. But when we will die is not sure. It’s uncertain. And that’s the only thing we can know with any certainty.

      • John Cedar

        Since you bother to parse that obvious guesstimate so pedantically, I might as well point out that all those people committing suicide on this planet today, surly know their death date with specificity. 

        • LinRP

          Take suicide out of the equation, and we’re back to the basic Buddhist teaching quoted above.

      • Expanded_Consciousness

        Not quite. Statistical information is a type of knowledge. We live our lives on the correct assumption we are not going to die today. If we knew we were going to die today, we’d probably not go to work, take that job, enter that marriage, have that kid, plan that retirement fund, etc. 

        This ‘live your life like there is no tomorrow,’ and existentialist and Buddhist urging of us to be death-aware or death-obsessed has limited utility. When you walk down the stairs all day, you do not cling in a panic to the rail with each step, even though there is a 0.0001 chance that any stair may give way underneath you. One is correct in living life by anticipating the most likely outcomes. Planning for the future is a healthy thing.

        • brettearle

          Heeding danger is as important.

          If OTC drug companies had anticipated the Tylenol tragedy, vials would have been sealed with great protection, years before the Deaths.

          If we had heeded the WTC bombing of 1994, it’s possible–though not definite–that 9/11 might have been prevented, delayed, or reduced (where something else occurred, or was attempted,  on a less destructive scale).

          I’m far from being elderly, but I take my time on descending steep stairs.

          Many people die, or are irreparably injured, falling down steps.

          In fact, I don’t understand why they still allow steep stairwells for private or public buildings.

          • http://hammernews.com/ hammermann

             The steeper the better. I’m the fastest human flying down stairs: Mayan temple 18″ nightmares, Soviet 1000ft escalators. Windmilling feet like a blur, done correctly you skid off the corners of the steps like some kind of wakeboarders. I was really mad once and leaned forward and lost it: did a full flip and smashed myself up terribly.

            But there’s almost nothing good after about 30, 40 max, with getting older.

          • Expanded_Consciousness

            A lot of 50, 60, 70, and 80 year olds would disagree with you.

      • brettearle

        If men and women don’t come to grips with their Mortality, they live in a Fool’s Paradise.

    • http://www.facebook.com/pia.vastatrix Pia Vastatrix

      IF one’s mental faculties are intact.

  • LinRP

    Thing is, we all know the alternative. Better embrace it because even at 80, life is short.

  • arydberg

    Lets get real here.    At 71 80% of the people I know are very concerned about memory loss.    As for me I cannot help but wonder how much the chemicals in our food  damage our memories.    Specifically the folic acid that is mandated to be put into all flour and cereal solely to help pregnant  women.    Why do we all have to eat this stuff?    It is possible that this  is part of our problems?    

    Also why do 33 countries have better health then we do?      

  • HonestDebate1

    There is but one alternative to growing old.

    • jefe68

      Yeah, dying young.

    • brettearle


      I finally got around to responding to your last comments, from a couple of weeks ago, about Foreign Policy.

      It’s back on the Syria thread, where we last left off…towards the end of June.

      Obviously, I don’t expect you to spend a great deal of time on it….but when you get the chance…..



  • brettearle

    My first reaction to this program was:

    Yeah, just like your average feature showcase article in the human interest/arts page of a large city newspaper:

    We celebrate all the success–not the failures, all around, that are never reported.

    In other words, we are all pleased as punch that Dr. Sacks has made it big in the Sr. Citizen `numbers racket’.

    But what of all the cancer patients, severe  arthritic patients, semi-dementia patients, macular degeneration patients, etc.–who start falling apart, by the age of 70?….through no fault of their own.

    Doesn’t Dr. Sacks success story instill false hope?


    But on second thought, there are lessons to be understood from seniors who live long and prosperous lives.

    Picasso died at 91, was it?….even though, it was claimed, that he lived, daily, in dread.

    Norman Vincent Peale was 96.

    And my mother lived to an amazing age, herself…..  

  • Wahoo_wa

    One important choice you can make as you grow older is not to make the tragic mistake of wearing glasses in the manner in which this fellow does in the picture.  No one needs to see that.

    • J__o__h__n

      It could be his next book title: The Octogenarian who Mistook his Forehead for his Eyes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pia.vastatrix Pia Vastatrix

    I’m very glad Oliver Sacks has the money, physical and mental health, and status to thoroughly enjoy being 80. But, that combination is rather rare – best not to generalize, or project his situation onto others.

    • geraldfnord

      „Ist das nötige Geld vorhanden, ist das Ende meistens gut.“

      No guaranty of it, of course, but one consequence of improved medical technology is that rich and poor decline and die much more differently than they formerly did, with interesting consequences for social peace….

      • http://www.facebook.com/pia.vastatrix Pia Vastatrix

        Yes, I’ve always thought that money can’t buy happiness, but not having enough can surely bring misery.

  • JosephPratt

    I’m skeptical. Dr. Sacks has been very successful in life and now has the resources to to enjoy old age. Great! But for those of us who will be of lesser means in old age, I believe it will be a struggle that will not lend itself to exuberant enjoyment. Please ask Dr. Sacks to respond to this.

    • donniethebrasco

      Didn’t he say, “Just eat cat food?”

      It gets me frustrated that fresh chicken livers are not taxed, but canned cat food is (in MA)?

      Is that because cat food is considered “prepared food?”

  • bostonjennifer

    Was it always a joy to get older or did you go through a period of sadness / anger? I’m asking because my father, who is in his mid 60′s, seems to be going through a period of dissatisfaction. Is there hope for him… and me?

    • Wm_James_from_Missouri

      I not joking when I say; If you want your father to feel better, help him find a woman in her 40’s or 50’s. I am in my 50’s. Last week I had a woman in her 20’s ask me for my phone number ! At first, I looked around and thought she was talking to someone else. : ) I can tell you this, though, all day long I was floating on air !

      Check out DrLife:


  • Valeriezoe

    When Oliver spoke of “luck” as a factor in old age I thought back to a comment of a Japanese researcher who said, “Luck favors the prepared mind.”  Not unlike preparing the mind to take advantage of things in front of us, preparing the body during our life is equally important.  Yes, you can begin exercise at any point and make some headway, but the sooner you do so with a regular practice of yoga, a daily walk, dancing merrily around the floor, the longer and better the results.  This is probably the most cost-effective measure for quality aging.

  • bellbird

    I’m curious– how do the elderly without children or family fare? Are they as “happy” as those with lots of children, grandchldren, etc?

  • donniethebrasco

    What is this thing the caller just talked about?


    Is that a book by L. Ron Hubbard?

    I know it isn’t the Bible, because that should never be spoken about on Government radio.  Separation of Church and State and all.

  • homebuilding

    In fifteen years, hopefully, I’ll be enjoying 80–perhaps with even better faculties than Sachs.

    But, I’m very pleased to have given ‘psychotherapy’ a pass.   

    So, what’s the deal with his 46 ! ! year history, here?

    I’m suffering a bit of cognitive dissonance, hearing about the bliss of an older life, when more than half of it has been spent exploring–what ? ?   (not a clue in today’s narrative)

    I noted that no callers even mentioned therapy–as a personal plus or minus

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      Big deal. If you have the money, time, and desire, you talk to an analyst about your life and your reaction to it like you would to a friend, only you get back careful, analytic-type interpretations. You deal with longstanding patterns: your habitual reactions to life, marriage, co-workers, the past, whatever your dealing with in the present. It is just one of the luxuries Sacks is fortunate enough to enjoy.

  • Sciencespassion

    Sad that there was no mention of the biochemical mechism/ factors which cause aging.Inflammation,telomere length, nutrient defiecnies( magnesium water fish oil revertiol), allegys, nutragenmoic, gut flora, gene damge/ repair, igf-1(sugar), carcdion rythm,. Being happy reduce stress( biochemical stress), thoses in higher positions have been show to have less stress markers, fincal debt is a massive contributer to stess, exercise modulates this and other aging process.

    We are not a feared of aging we are afraid of frailty losing eat wrinkled poor eye sight un shaply bodies we are afraid of more limitations. If we can stop puberty menopause and other critical parts of aging we might understand how to stop aging.
    (understand I don want to stop puberty as it has its benefits but we must understand how to without comprising the body to understand how to alter aging)

  • tbphkm33

    “You are only as old as you feel.” – me.

    It is so true, I have meet 20s somethings who’s outlook on life makes them look years beyond their true age, then I have meet 80s somethings who’s outlook on life makes them youthful. 

    My grandmother lost her husband at 63.  Having never worked outside the home, she decided to become a house mother at a university sorority.  She loved that job until she was 79 and decided it was time to retire.  To this day, you never think of her as old, her perspective on life is of someone who is young. She is 92 now, tomorrow she is flying to Europe to visit family, by herself.  She decided it was time to go for a visit and got on her Mac and ordered a ticket.  She learned computers at 80.

    Ten years ago she visited my brother in Colorado.  After a day of hiking, they were relaxing with a beer – when they look out the window and see the 82 year old playing hopscotch with the 4 year old.  

    Last year, at 91, she was commenting on how much she likes my dog, I suggested she should get a dog, only to be informed, “well, one day when I slow down and have the time, I would like to.”  No indication that she is slowing down anytime soon.

    • 2Gary2

      Back in the real world–feeling has nothing to do with age.  I can “feel” like I am 20, however, that does not make me 20.  I am still 47. I can feel rich but when you check my bank account it is still empty. Try paying the mortgage with your feelings.

      There was this old loss prevention lady at work who was in her mid 50′s but dressed and acted like a teenager.  We all thought she was more like a clown.

      • tbphkm33

        You miss the point – I am not talking about physical appearance, I am talking about mental outlook.  You can let life beat you down and suffer the consequences, or you can take charge and live life.  Don’t let the world rule your life, look for a deeper happiness.  

        Don’t knock the coworkers who dresses “wrong,” embrace her individuality.  The U.S.A., the “land of the individual”, where you are an individual only if you wear Levis jeans and conform.  Stray outside the societal constraints, people call you a “clown.”

        • 2Gary2

          isn’t physical appearance all that really matters?  And yes her individuality looks like a clown.

          I bet if you take 2 people–one a dog and the other a hot babe-  the hot babe has it way easier than the dog even if the dog has a better mental outlook.

          I am not trying to be argumentative with you and I applaud your thinking, its just not the real world.  And yes I should not be referring to a person as a dog but for the sake of brevity…

          • Expanded_Consciousness

            It is not an either/or proposition. Everyone has their level of looks and their particular mental outlook. One’s experience is very subjective. There are plenty of mentally suffering “hot babes.”

          • Jay Mandeville

             If you seriously believe that physical appearance is all that matters, you “appear” to me to be someone who has let 47 years drift by without learning very much.

          • 2Gary2

             I hate to say it but yes physical appearance is mostly all that matters–I am not saying this is a good thing but all you need to do is look around at all the plastic surgeons and appearance related products.  Not too many personality products.

            People by their nature are visual and one does not get kudos for a good second impression but good first impression.

  • Sciencespassion

    Sad that there was no mention of the biochemical mechism/ factors which cause aging.Inflammation,telomere length, nutrient defiecnies( magnesium water fish oil revertiol), allegys, nutragenmoic, gut flora, gene damge/ repair, igf-1(sugar), carcdion rythm,. Being happy reduce stress( biochemical stress), thoses in higher positions have been show to have less stress markers, fincal debt is a massive contributer to stess, exercise modulates this and other aging process.

    We are not a feared of aging we are afraid of frailty losing eat wrinkled poor eye sight un shaply bodies we are afraid of more limitations. If we can stop puberty menopause and other critical parts of aging we might understand how to stop aging.
    (understand I don want to stop puberty as it has its benefits but we must understand how to without comprising the body to understand how to alter aging)

  • Mary Percifield

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks to Oliver Sacks,The New York Times published my letter to the editor.I was so inspired by his Op-Ed article,I had to respond.  About today’s listeners’ comments,Dr. Sachs’ words were strictly personal.No social commentary, merely his sense of wonderment.I will be 84 in October..a true Depression baby…and I am so thankful to be alive.True, I have some health conditions that are controlled and I had a total hip replacement last year.I’ve been a widow since 2001 and live alone in a large house.I love it.When I return after shopping or from a long trip, I ,still, call out, “Bob, I’m home.”Sounds silly, I know.Radio,PBS,books,opera,good music and  baking for all occasions:”That’s Entertainment!”Thank you for your timely,instructive programs which give so many people pure enjoyment.Sincererly,Mary Percifield

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    “I grow old … I grow old …

    I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

    T.S. Eliot – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    Do not go gentle into that good night

    by Dylan Thomas

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
    Because their words had forked no lightning they
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
    Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
    And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
    Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, 
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    And you, my father, there on the sad height,
    Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Audio of Dylan reciting the poem:


  • Expanded_Consciousness

    Old Age Poems 

    poems about old age


  • Wayne Martin

    “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift; that’s why they call it the present.”  – - Eleanor Roosevelt

  • citizen2001

    Both Drs. Sachs and Aronson urge engagement and community, yet many nursing homes do not provide internet access for their residents.  Not required by law to do so, for-profit health care…
    including in Cambridge MA – not a small player in the internet.

  • Regular_Listener

    Am I the only one who is not getting much from listening to Dr. Sacks crow about how wonderful his old age is?  Not everyone gets to have the opportunities and advantages he does – plenty of money, good health, an ability to continue working into his 80s.  Good for him, I have no objections – but where is the wisdom for others, particularly others who don’t have all that he still does?

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