The latest brain research says you really are older and wiser.
[Plus, ask Barbara a question, below, and you could win a copy of her book!]
“We all freak out a little bit when we can’t remember what we had for breakfast,” says FOF Barbara Strauch, New York Times science writer and the author of the recent best-seller, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain (Viking 2010). Barbara was inspired by her own middle-aged forgetfulness to write about the latest research on aging and the human mind. What she found surprised her.
“We used to believe that peak brain function was in young adulthood. But modern middle age, 40 to 65, is very different than it used to be,” says Strauch. “Many of us are entering this time having had a healthy childhood, vaccines and good nutrition, so our brains are in good shape.” Yes, certain forms of memory acquisition do decline with age. But, Barbara says, recent longitudinal studies show that your FOF brain is superior to your under-fifty brain in very important ways….
- It’s better at problem solving. “My 53-year-old friend is a doctor in New York. When she walks into a hospital room, she can immediately assess a medical situation in a way she couldn’t in her twenties,” reports Strauch. She says our brains are “measurably better at reasoning and seeing the big picture” in our fifties because we have the connections and patterns that build up over years of experiences. “When we are younger we are better at remembering facts. My friend who teaches at Columbia says his graduate students are great at memorizing things, but unlike older adults, they don’t always connect the dots.”
- It’s better at judging people. As we age, our brains become more “distractible,” says Strauch, letting in more “peripheral” information. This can be an asset. “Studies show that when an older person meets someone for the second time, she already has a great deal more peripheral information than a younger person has.” That means she’s picked up on subtle characteristics such as shiftiness and is better at making overall character assessments such as whether someone’s a “good guy or a bad guy.”
- It’s more creative. The brain’s left and right hemispheres become better integrated during middle age, making way for greater creativity. The neurons themselves may move slower, but they become more richly intertwined. That’s why age is such an advantage in fields like editing, law, medicine, coaching and management. It also helps us connect our thoughts with our emotions.
- It’s more optimistic. The stereotype: middle age is full of mid-life crises, empty nest syndrome and fears of decline. But studies show that one’s sense of well being actually increases and peaks in middle age in men and women. Your amygdala—the fight-or-flight part of the brain—starts to respond less to the negative and more to the positive as we age. Stanford scientist Laura Carstensen calls this the Positivety effect. She believes that negative information is less valuable to us than it was when we were younger because we subconsciously recognize that we have less time left. This also may have some evolutionary roots: older tribes people needed more optimism to help the younger people in their care to thrive.
- It can be improved.
Whether you’re 50, 60 or 70, you can actually get smarter. “Exercise is incredibly important,” says Strauch. “It increases blood volume in the brain, which improves your cognitive scores and even grows baby brain cells in the hippocampus–the part of the brain that’s important for memory. You don’t have to run a marathon–just walk around the block briskly and get your heart going. Also, challenge your brain by forcing it to navigate new situations. If you have trouble learning languages, sign up for French class. Take a new route to work. Shake up your brain and make it work harder.
“The most important thing is to appreciate your brain and not worry about these little memory glitches. Remember, if you forget something important you can always just google it!”
Have a question for Barbara? As it below to enter to win a copy of her book!
Deputy science editor of The New York TimesBarbara Strauch is deputy science editor of The New York Times in charge of health and medical science. She is the author of two books, The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, on the surprising talents of the middle-aged mind, published in April 2010, and The Primal Teen, on the teenage brain.