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The Hidden Benefits of the Aging Brain

Not long ago I tried—really tried— to get a book for a book club I’m in. I went online and carefully ordered The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. About a week later, I had a free moment at work and I thought, Oh, I should order that book club book. I went online and carefully typed in an order for The Alchemist—again.

Then a few days later, jogging in the park, a faint bell went off in my head and I thought, I think I ordered the wrong book. At home, I checked my email and, sure enough, we were supposed to read The Archivist by Martha Cooley.

I’d ordered the wrong book—twice.

That wasn’t the end of it. Later that week, I was talking with a fellow book club member, a neurologist, who, after hearing my embarrassing story, started to laugh. It turns out that she’d gone to the library to get the book club book and had just as carefully come home with a copy of The Alienist by Caleb Carr.

So there you go. Two middle-aged brains, three wrong books.

And of course it doesn’t stop there. One recent morning, I went down to the basement to get something. But by the time I got there, I had no idea what it was. Lightbulbs? Serving platter? All I could do was go back upstairs and try to figure it out. There it was, the empty paper towel rack. And so, with my 58-year-old brain in tow, I went downstairs again, saying over and over: “Paper towels, paper towels, paper towels…’’

Ahh…it can get bad out there. And scary. We all know we’re going to get older and possibly become sick. But what we really worry about is losing our mind. Will we fumble our words or forget to tie our shoes? Are our brains on an inevitable downward slide? It seemed as I reached middle age that this was the case. I could almost accept it, but I wanted to find out why.

Several years ago, I wrote a book on the teenage brain and found that new technology had given us a fresh view on what was happening to the brain in adolescence. So I began to wonder, what is science finding out about our middle-aged brains?

Over the years, we’ve been trained to think that the body and the brain age in tandem. Certain changes are undeniable. Despite the regular runs, the laps at the YMCA pool, the yoga, I’m 20 pounds heavier than I ever was before. I need glasses that correct for three different distances. My face has distinct lines, and my hair, without help, is an undistinguished brownish gray.

We assume that there’s equivalent decay inside our heads, but as I started doing some digging, I learned that there’s another story to tell—one that’s quite the opposite of what I’d expected. It turns out that our middle-aged brains are surprisingly competent and talented. That’s welcome news for someone like me; at least one body part is doing better than I thought.

Over the past few years, in fact, researchers have found out a great deal about what happens at middle age, which they usually define as somewhere between 40 and 68. Clearly, there are some glitches. Remembering names gets harder and brain-processing speed slows down, making it harder to, say, learn to play the piano or focus on one task without getting distracted. But in many ways the brain is actually at its peak, and it stays there longer than any of us ever dared to hope.

Here are just a few of the things that have recently been discovered about what happens as we age.

We Get Smarter

When it comes to most areas of cognitive performance, we’re at the top of our game in midlife, not in our 20s as many had thought. One of the most respected long-term studies, the Seattle Longitudinal Study, has found that most people are better at reasoning—which involves problem-solving and vocabulary skills—from ages 40 to 60 than they were in their 20s. So while we may be having trouble recalling the names of acquaintances, we’re surprisingly better at memorizing lists of words, getting the gist of arguments, making judgments of character and even juggling finances.

We’re also getting better at solving problems. Through the years, our brains have built up interwoven layers of knowledge that allow us to instantly recognize similarities and see solutions. One friend, a doctor in her mid-50s, says that when she gets into a hospital room now she can immediately size up the situation, which means she can often figure out what to do more quickly and easily.

And perhaps best of all, scientists are finding that this is not your mother’s middle age: Each generation is smarter in middle age than its parents were.

We’re Happier

We have all been conditioned to dread a time of midlife crises and empty nests. But there is no evidence for such widespread angst. Those who are in crisis, the studies show, have tended to have crises throughout their lives—meaning they didn’t all of a sudden crop up in middle age. Most of us are instead becoming more content. In part this is because our brains start reacting less to the negative and shifting to focus more on the positive. Perhaps we realize, on some subconscious level, that we have less time left. But we also have accumulated enough information over the years to help us put our energy into what might work when faced with a problem, rather than harp on what might not.

Several studies have confirmed that middle age is a pretty happy time. One recent large study from the University of California at Berkeley found that women’s moods and self-esteem—as well as their ability to regulate emotions— improved in midlife, when they became more confident, assertive and responsible. And a 22-year study of 2,000 men by scientists at Fordham University found that life satisfaction actually peaked at age 65 regardless of health, marital or financial status.

We Can Prevent the Loss of Brain Cells, and Even Generate New Ones

For years, scientists thought our brains lost up to 30 percent of their neurons as we got older. Now research shows that we keep most of our brain cells for as long as we live. Exercise helps, by pumping blood through our brain’s blood vessels and prompting the creation of new brain cells, even at older ages. Research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has found that middle-aged people who did regular stints of aerobic exercise—such as brisk walking—had increased volume in key brain areas and were better at a wide range of complex cognitive tasks, such as focusing and ignoring irrelevant information.

And while it’s true that we can lose the important connections between brain cells if they are unused, the flip side is also true: We can nourish these connections and help foster new ones by pushing our brains to keep working hard. One long-time researcher at Columbia University says that if we want our grownup brains to stretch, we have to present them with a “disorienting dilemma,” something that pushes us out of our comfort zone. This can include learning to play the cello, tackling challenging Sudoku puzzles, or even confronting ideas and people who disagree with us. By reading a book with a different political point of view, for example, we challenge the assumptions that have built up in our brains over time (even if we don’t change our minds). The result is that we end up with a more nuanced view of the world— something our middle-aged brains both crave and excel at.

Since delving into all this research, I have gained a new respect for the talents of my grownup brain. My physical body may be a little creakier than it used to be, but that’s OK. Knees come and go—we can even have them replaced—but we hang on to our brains. And those brains have built up rich connections that make us smarter, wiser and happier than we were when we were younger. They let us, in an instant, make sound judgments: good choice, bad choice, friend or foe?

One friend of mine, a woman in her mid-50s who has been an editor for years and recently had to deal with her mother’s long illness, her daughter’s unhappiness at college and her husband’s brush with a serious disease, said that even though she often feels stressed-out, she also feels quite competent.

Some days, she told me, she finds herself putting bananas in the laundry basket, but at the same time, she said, “I feel like there’s not one problem, professional or personal, that I could not manage.” I couldn’t agree more.

Based on The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain by Barbara Strauch.

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