The Nobel laureate James Watson, who started a revolution in science as co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, put it to me straight a couple of years ago: “Never retire. Your brain needs exercise or it will atrophy.”Why, then, am I bidding Op-Ed readers farewell after more than 3,000 columns? Nobody pushed me; at 75, I’m in good shape, not afflicted with political ennui; and my recent column about tsunami injustice and the Book of Job drew the biggest mail response in 32 years of pounding out punditry.Here’s why I’m outta here: In an interview 50 years before, the aging adman Bruce Barton told me something like Watson’s advice about the need to keep trying something new, which I punched up into “When you’re through changing, you’re through.” He gladly adopted the aphorism, which I’ve been attributing to him ever since.Combine those two bits of counsel – never retire, but plan to change your career to keep your synapses snapping – and you can see the path I’m now taking. Readers, too, may want to think about a longevity strategy.We’re all living longer. In the past century, life expectancy for Americans has risen from 47 to 77. With cures for cancer, heart disease and stroke on the way, with genetic engineering, stem cell regeneration and organ transplants a certainty, the boomer generation will be averting illness, patching itself up and pushing well past the biblical limits of “threescore and ten.”But to what purpose? If the body sticks around while the brain wanders off, a longer lifetime becomes a burden on self and society. Extending the life of the body gains most meaning when we preserve the life of the mind.That idea led a lifetime friend, David Mahoney, who headed the Dana Foundation until his death in 2000, to join with Jim Watson in forming the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. They roped me in, a dozen years ago, to help enliven a moribund “decade of the brain.” By encouraging many of the most prestigious neuroscientists to get out of the ivory tower and explain in plain words the potential of brain science, they enlisted the growing public and private support for research.That became the program running quietly in the background of my on-screen life as language maven, talking head, novelist and twice-weekly vituperative right-wing scandalmonger.I had no pretensions about becoming a scientist (having graduated near the bottom of my class at the Bronx High School of Science) but did launch a few publications and a website – http://www.Dana.org – that opened some channels among scientists, journalists and people seeking reliable information about the exciting field.Experience as a Times polemicist made it easier to wade into the public controversies of science. Dana philanthropy provides forums to debate neuroethics: Is it right to push beyond treatment for mental illness to enhance the normal brain? Should we level human height with growth hormones? Is cloning ever morally sound? Does a drug-induced sense of well-being undermine “real” happiness? Such food for thought is now becoming my meat.And what about what the cognition crowd calls “executive transfer” in learning? Does an early grasp of the arts – music, dance, drama, drawing – affect a child’s ability to apply that cognitive process to facility in math, architecture, history? New imaging techniques and much-needed longitudinal studies may provide answers rather than anecdotes and affect arts budgets in schools.So I told The Times’ publisher two years ago that the 2004 presidential campaign would be my last hurrah as political pundit, and that I would then take on the full-time chairmanship of Dana. He expressed appropriate dismay at losing the Op-Ed conservative but said it would be a terrible idea to abandon the Sunday language column. That’s my scholarly recreation, so I agreed to continue. (Don’t use so as a conjunction!)Starting next week, working in an operating and grant-making foundation, I will have to retrain parts of my brain. That may not make me a n see Safire on page 10– continued from page 8big man on hippocampus, but it means less of the horizon-gazing that required me to take positions on everything going on in the world; instead, a welcome verticalism will drive me to dig more deeply into specific areas of interest. Fewer lone-wolf assertions; more collegial dealing. I hear that’s tough.But retraining and fresh stimulation are what all of us should require in “the last of life, for which the first was made.” Athletes and dancers deal with the need to retrain in their 30s, workers in their 40s, managers in their 50s, politicians in their 60s, academics and media biggies in their 70s. The trick is to start early in our careers the stress-relieving avocation that we will need later as a mind-exercising final vocation. We can quit a job, but we quit fresh involvement at our mental peril.In this inaugural winter of 2005, the government in Washington is dividing with partisan zeal over the need or the way to protect today’s 20-somethings’ Social Security accounts in 2040. Sooner or later, we’ll bite that bullet; personal economic security is freedom from fear.But how many of us are planning now for our social activity accounts? Intellectual renewal is not a vast new government program, and to secure continuing social interaction deepens no deficit. By laying the basis for future activities in the midst of current careers, we reject stultifying retirement and seize the opportunity for an exhilarating second wind.Medical and genetic science will surely stretch our life spans. Neuroscience will just as certainly make possible the mental agility of the aging. Nobody should fail to capitalize on the physical and mental gifts to come.When you’re through changing, learning, working to stay involved – only then are you through. “Never retire.”William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times.
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