Science + Technology

What John Wooden teaches us about aging

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John Wooden, at age 98, in many ways has the memory of a 60-year-old, according to UCLA assistant professor of psychology Alan Castel, who interviewed the legendary former UCLA basketball coach at length about aging and his memory at Wooden's home last summer.
 
"John Wooden has been a role model, not just as a coach and a wise man but also on how to age successfully," Castel said. "He's a legend in ways that go far beyond basketball."
 
In general, memory starts to change as early as age 20 — and mostly not for the better, said Castel, who conducts research on human memory and aging, including how memory changes as we get older.
 
"Coach Wooden is really sharp, with a quick sense of humor, and can recite poems quite spontaneously," said Castel, 33, who published an article titled "Memory and Successful Aging: A Conversation with Coach John Wooden" in the February issue of the Observer, the monthly journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
 
Castel attributes Wooden's mental sharpness largely to his high level of social support, his optimistic and positive nature, and keeping his mind active.
 
"When asked about the keys to successful aging, Coach was quick to respond: stay busy, stay active, enjoy every day like it is your masterpiece, have some variety and try to learn something new every day," Castel said. "One of Coach's famous quotes, 'When I am through learning, then I am through,' illustrates his lifelong commitment to learning.
 
"Coach Wooden has had a very good combination, when he was coaching and afterwards, of being active mentally and physically and has had a strong approach to pursuing his interests," Castel said. "During his coaching days at UCLA, he regularly walked a brisk 5 miles a day at the track in the early morning, using this time to reflect on previous and upcoming practices and games. He also attended some UCLA psychology classes to help him better understand how to interact with his younger players.
 
"Staying positive and upbeat, having a loving family that you cherish, having strong social support, having interests, working hard — he worked hard as a coach and a player, he works hard on his poetry and on maintaining an active schedule — all of these help.
 
"His personality, positivity, wisdom and atti­tude toward aging play important roles in his cognitive vitality. He also has a great sense of humor about life and even death; that's a topic not many people like to talk about, but he's quite comfortable with it. He doesn't fear death; he expects to be reunited with his late wife, Nellie."

Castel recalled that at the end of the interview, he introduced Wooden to his wife. Wooden, he said, "scolded me for not bringing her in sooner and said, in a charming and joking manner, that she is much better looking than I am. I felt comfortable, like I was visiting a wise family member rather than an iconic legend."
 
Wooden's UCLA basketball teams won 10 NCAA national titles in 12 years and his Bruins hold the all-time NCAA consecutive winning record of 88 games over four seasons. He is the only basketball coach to have four undefeated seasons.
 
He remembers distinct details from each year that he coached, including statistics and which players did what at certain times, said Castel, who grew up playing basketball and is an avid fan.
 
"Coach vividly recalled events that influenced society, such as his involvement in bringing racial equality to college basketball," Castel said. "He was proud to note that his 1948 Indiana State team included Clarence Walker, the first African American player permitted to play in the national collegiate tournament."
 
Wooden has had a lifelong love of poetry and has been reading, writing and reciting poetry for more than 80 years. He writes poems down many times and recites poems before he goes to sleep, said Castel, who noted that repetition is a good memory strategy. Wooden also spaces them apart over time, another effective strategy.
 
"It's difficult for students to understand why it's better to space out studying than to cram the night before the exam," said Castel, who typically conducts studies with dozens of older adults at a time. "Coach Wooden intuitively knows this, as he uses this strategy."
 
In their interview, Wooden was quick to comment that his memory has declined as he has aged, yet Castel was impressed with his awareness of his memory.
 
Castel said Wooden told him, "I am a happy and grateful man, and I remember the things that matter to me, but sometimes it is a challenge."
 
"He has a very full calendar that is handwritten in front of him," Castel noted. "He relies on notes and reminders.
 
"Memory gets worse as we get older, but often we're more focused on what's important to us. For Coach Wooden, that includes family, poetry, seeing the people who are important in his life and attending UCLA basketball games and gymnastics meets and having a good sense of humor. He's quick with a wisecrack, which can catch you off guard."
 
Wooden "is surrounded by memories," including photos of family members and his teams, as well as trophies and awards, Castel said.
 
Even at 98, Wooden actively pursues his interests. He has daily contact with his family, reads biographies of historical figures, including Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, has an "astounding" knowledge of current events and still attends UCLA Athletics events, as he has for years.
 
"A lot of people might think, 'I should do crossword puzzles to help my brain,' when what you really need to do is something you enjoy that is stimulating," Castel said.
 
"I can only hope I will be like Coach Wooden when I get older," he added. "I don't need to win 10 national championships, but if I can be close to his shape in my 90s, I will be very happy. He provided me with optimism and many important reminders about how to think about successful aging.
 
"He doesn't have 'the secret' about successful aging, which may mean we all have the potential to be this successful in how we age. He's still a role model, and not just for what's he done, but also for his modesty and character."
 
Another such example, Castel said, is Nola Ochs, a woman from Kansas who graduated from college last year at age 95, along with her 21-year-old granddaughter.
 
UCLA is California's largest university, with an enrollment of nearly 38,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The UCLA College of Letters and Science and the university's 11 professional schools feature renowned faculty and offer more than 323 degree programs and majors. UCLA is a national and international leader in the breadth and quality of its academic, research, health care, cultural, continuing education and athletic programs. Four alumni and five faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize.
 
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