Too old to start a business, train for a new career, get a degree, learn a language, run a marathon, become expert in a new skill? Think again. From middle age to age 100, and in virtually every field, people are redefining what is possible as we age. And by focusing a little differently, you can too.
Fauja Singh took up running to give him solace and a new focus after his eldest daughter, wife and then his fifth son all died within a couple of years. Singh was 89 at the time.
You read that correctly. Singh took up running just short of his 90th year. He went on to run in international marathons throughout his 90s. In 2011, Singh became the first 100-year old to run a marathon. Nicknamed the Turbaned Tornado (for the head covering he wears as a Sikh), he ran his last race – a 10K in Hong Kong – at 102, but continued even at that age to run informally, and to walk for hours each day.
The next time you (or someone you know) wonders if life has passed you by and you’re now too old to accomplish whatever goal or activity you have in mind – remember Fauja Singh.
And although runners of Singh’s age may not be common, Singh is hardly alone. Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins took up sprinting when she was 100. A year later, she was running the 100-yard dash at national competitions, breaking world records for her age group. She was still winning competitions at 103. Orville Rogers, a former pilot, was setting new world records for his age group when he was 100 – even though he had suffered a stroke seven years before.
Of course, if you are willing to include “younger” athletes in their 80s and 90s, the list grows much longer. There is now an entire subculture of elderly athletes, training for competitions and displaying impressive athletic ability at an age popularly associated with limited mobility. Ed Whitlock became the first person over 70 to run a marathon in under three hours (an impressive time at any age), and at 85 became the oldest person to complete the 26.2 mile course in under four hours.
The Brain Beyond the Body
Your goal may not be to gain unusual athletic prowess for your age. You may want to start a business or come up with a new invention, or just be able to remember where you put your keys. And you may not be elderly. Even in middle age, people begin to worry that they’re no longer fast enough, agile enough or energetic enough to successfully pursue their goals.
There’s good news for you. Recent discoveries in neuroscience reveal that, although the brain does slow down in certain respects as we age, our capacity to grow and improve and learn new things is far greater than we once imagined.
In next week’s article, I’ll discuss some of these discoveries and delve into what science says both about our brain’s limitations and its surprising possibilities as we age. But first, let’s look at the practical – how real people function at impressive levels as they get older, and how you can too.
At the ripe old age of 23, John Goodenough was told by the University of Chicago that he was already too old to succeed in physics. Undeterred, Goodenough went on to co-invent the lithium-ion battery at age 57. When he turned 94, he filed for a patent for a new and even more powerful battery that could be used in electric cars.
Many have bought into the myth of the young person, barely out of their teens, working in their parents’ basement and producing the next latest-greatest technology. Although those young world-changers certainly exist, they may be more the exception than the rule.
A 2016 Information Technology and Innovation Foundation study discovered that inventors actually peak closer to age 50 on average, and their most productive accomplishments often come in the last half of their careers. The average age for inventors to file with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is 47, and the most economically viable patents tend to come from inventors who are over 55.
In business too, older entrepreneurs achieve far greater success in reality than in the popular imagination. Even as the Googles and Facebooks of the world were started by people in their 20s, Robert Noyce co-founded Intel when he was in his 40s. Ray Kroc didn’t start McDonalds until he was 52.
John Pemberton was in his mid-50s when he invented the drink that was to become Coca-Cola. Colonel Sanders was 62 when he started Kentucky Fried Chicken, selling the company at 75. Martha Stewart was nearly 50 when she began her now-famous magazine. Leo Goodwin was 50 when he founded the GEICO insurance company.
Today, countless entrepreneurs are establishing winning businesses in their 50s, 60s and older.
Putting Your Brain to Work at Any Age
So if you’re past a certain age, but wonder if you still have it in you to create the next great technology or business or work of art (Grandma Moses first took up painting at 78), what do you do? What if you want to learn a new subject or a new language or get a degree even if you’re nowhere near what people consider to be college age?
There are a few easy steps you can take to refocus and maximize your chances of success:
1. Change your mindset. Recognize that, according to the latest neuroscience research, the brain can change and improve at virtually any age. We’ll delve more into the specifics of the research next week, but you don’t need scientific research to know that Martha Stewart and Ray Kroc and countless others have racked up all kinds of accomplishments just when many are starting to think about retirement.
There are too many older success stories to discount – if so many others can do it, so can you. If you find yourself thinking some variation of “I’m too old to do that,” remember all the people older than you who weren’t too old to do what they did. True, a few things may be out of range – for example, if you’re 70 and want to play professional football. But the possibilities far outweigh the exceptions.
2. Upgrade Your Brain. Meditation. Exercises to build your powers of focus. Physical activity. Learning a language. There are many ways you can improve your brain’s capabilities at any age, which will improve every aspect of your life. Many of the articles on this blog will get you started with hands-on activities you can do immediately to get the most out of your mental abilities.
3. Take care of yourself. Numerous studies show the positive impact of proper sleep, proper diet and exercise. Conversely, whatever your age, your mental functions will take a nosedive if you are sleep-deprived, out of shape or consuming a diet rich in junk food and poor in essential nutrients. A healthy mind requires a healthy body.
Imagine what you could accomplish if you focused on all that is possible regardless of your age, worked on increasing your ability to focus, and maintained a healthy lifestyle. You might come up with the next great idea the world needs. You might break a world record. You might even remember where you put your keys.
Whatever your goal, and whatever your age, properly nurturing your brain and body will take you farther than you can imagine.