The Talents of a Middle-Aged Brain
April 30, 2010
By TARA PARKER-POPE
After we hit 40, many of us begin to worry about our aging brains. Will we spend our middle years searching for car keys and forgetting names?
The new book “The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind,” by Barbara Strauch, has the answers, and the news is surprisingly upbeat. Sure, brains can get forgetful as they get old, but they can also get better with age, reports Ms. Strauch, who is also the health editor at The New York Times. Ms. Strauch, who previously tackled teenage brains in her book “The Primal Teen,” spoke with me this week about aging brains and the people who have them. Here’s our conversation:
After exploring the teenage brain, why did you decide to write a book about grown-ups?
A.Well, I have a middle-aged brain, for one thing. When I would go give talks about “The Primal Teen,” I’d be driven to the airport or back by a middle-aged person, and they’d turn to me and say: “You should do something about my brain. My brain is suddenly horrible. I can’t remember names.” That’s why I started looking into it. I had my own middle-aged issues like going into an elevator and seeing somebody and thinking, “Who are you?”
Q.So what’s the bad news about the middle-aged brain?
A.Obviously, there are issues with short-term memory. There are declines in processing speed and in neurotransmitters, the chemicals in our brain. But as it turns out, modern middle age is from 40 to 65. During this long time in the middle, if we’re relatively healthy our brains may have a few issues, but on balance they’re better than ever during that period.
Q.Do teenage brains and middle-aged brains have much in common?
A.The thing the middle-aged brain shares with the teenage brain is that it’s still developing. It’s not some static blob that is going inextricably downhill. Scientists found that when they watched the brains of teenagers, the brains were expanding and growing and cutting back and shaping themselves, even when the kids are 25 years old. I think for many years scientists just left it at that. They thought that from 25 on, we just get “stupider.” But that’s not true. They’ve found that during this period, the new modern middle age, we’re better at all sorts of things than we were at 20.
Q.So what kinds of things does a middle-aged brain do better than a younger brain?
A.Inductive reasoning and problem solving — the logical use of your brain and actually getting to solutions. We get the gist of an argument better. We’re better at sizing up a situation and reaching a creative solution. They found social expertise peaks in middle age. That’s basically sorting out the world: are you a good guy or a bad guy? Harvard has studied how people make financial judgments. It peaks, and we get the best at it in middle age.
Q.Doesn’t that make sense, since our young adult lives are often marked by bad decisions?
A.I think most of us think that while we make bad decisions in our 20s, we also have the idea that we were the sharpest we ever were when we were in college or graduate school. People think if I tried to go to engineering school or medical school now, I couldn’t do it. Because of these memory problems that happen in middle age, we tend to think of our brains as, on the whole, worse than in our 20s. But on the whole, they’re better.
Q.So what’s happening in middle age that leads to these improvements?
A.What we have by middle age is all sorts of connections and pathways that have been built up in our brain that help us. They know from studies that humans and animals do better if they have a little information about a situation before they encounter it. By middle age we’ve seen a lot. We’ve been there, done that. Our brains are primed to navigate the world better because they’ve been navigating the world better for longer.
There also are some other physical changes that they can see. We used to think we lost 30 percent of our brain cells as we age. But that’s not true. We keep them. That’s probably the most encouraging finding about the physical nature of our brain cells.
Q.Is there anything you can do to keep your brain healthy and improve the deficits, like memory problems?
A.There’s a lot of hype in this field in terms of brain improvement. I did set out to find out what actually works and what we know. What we do with our bodies has a huge impact on our brains. Our brains are more like our hearts in that everything you do for your heart is thought to be equally as good or better for your brain. Exercise is the best studied thing you can do to your brain. It increases brain volume, produces new baby brain cells in grownup brains. Even when our muscles contract, it produces growth chemicals. Using your body can help your brain.
Q.What about activities like learning to play an instrument or learning a foreign language?
A.The studies on this are slim. We’ve all been told to do crossword puzzles. Learning a foreign language, walking a different way to work, all that is an effort to make the brain work hard. And it’s true we need to make our brains work hard. One of the most intriguing findings is that if you talk to people who disagree with you, that helps your brain wake up and refine your arguments and shake up the cognitive egg, which is what you want to do.
Q.Do social connections and relationships make a difference in how the brain ages?
A.There is a whole bunch of science about being social and how cognitive function seems to be better if you are social. There is a fascinating study in Miami where they studied people who lived in apartments. Those who had balconies where they could see their neighbors actually aged better cognitively than others. There are a whole bunch of studies like that. People who volunteer and help kids seem to age better and help their brains. We forget how difficult it is to meet, greet and deal with another human being. It’s hard on our brains and good for them.
Q.What was the most surprising thing you learned about the middle-aged brain?
A.The hope I saw from real scientists was surprising. A lot of the myths we think of in terms of middle age, myths that I grew up with, turn out to be based on almost nothing. Things like the midlife crisis or the empty nest syndrome. We’re brought up to think we’ll enter middle age and it will be kind of gloomy. But as scientists look at real people, they find out the contrary. One study of men found that well-being peaked at age 65. Over and over they find that middle age, instead of being a time of depression and decline, is actually a time of being more optimistic overall.