For a hundred years, neuroscience believed the mature brain was “stuck”- unchanging. It has now had to reverse that position. By middle age, our brains have trillions of connections making us smarter, calmer, happier and more capable. And we keep growing new brain cells until the day we die.
Barbara Strauch in “The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain” presents an impressive amount of research showing that for many of us the best is yet to come. Sure, as we age memory wanes, but judgement about people, work and the world around us is increasingly accurate.
As myelin (white matter) increases, so our brains build connections that help us make sense of our environment – a developed wisdom. This means we get to the point of an argument sooner than youngsters. It helps us act judiciously rather than irrationally.
A Seattle study found that middle-aged brains performed better in 4 out of 6 cognitive skills than at any other time. (Vocabulary, verbal memory, spatial orientation and inductive reasoning.)
We also increase in ‘bilateralisation’. As this use of both sides of our brain increases, we’re better able to deal with high levels of mental demand and situations requiring discernment (needed for management, law, diagnosis in medicine etc.)
There is now sufficient evidence for a cognitive reserve (in the frontal cortex) that buffers against negative effects of aging. (It’s exciting to have early research evidence to back what many have believed for years.)
And here is the answer to why we forget people’s names: the connective links between word and the concept of the word weakens with age. The example given is if Mr Potter is a baker and Mr Baker is a potter, you remember the occupations more easily than the names. Verbs are easier than nouns, as there are more neural networks involved. When we think of someone as a baker, the associations are all over the brain.
But one of the most significant findings is the variation among people during these years, which leads to the question about what causes superior performance in some. Yankner (Harvard Neuroscientist) found a 93-year old who had the genetic brain patterns of a middle-aged person. She had near perfect cognitive performance until the end of her life. He says causation is not just about genes but due to a combination of genes and the DNA soup (our environment) they live in.
The researchers Strauch interviewed have personally made the lifestyle changes found to be significant, so compelling is the evidence. Ages 40-50 seem to be the crossroads – what you do during this time determines what follows.
Brain boosters – the factors that cause new brain cell production and ward off dementia, (especially Alzheimer’s):
- Exercise: called the “magic wand” – exercise that increases heart rate and blood flow.
- Education: another reason to tell your children to appreciate education! The link appears to be causal between education when younger and protection against the effects of dementia when older.
- Cognitively-stimulating activity: the kind that involves collecting and processing complex information.
- People interaction: work that involves interaction with people as opposed to machine work. (Although I do wonder about the stress effects of staff interactions on managers – the ones I meet anyway! Is this what drives them behind their computers? The evidence shows it is best to go and have that face-to-face encounter in a calm and positive way, to ward off Alzheimer’s!)
- Diet: all the usuals such as anti-oxidants (especially dark-coloured foods), folic acid and (in other brain research) high-quality fish oils. Blueberries, spinach and spirulina has come up trumps in research.
- A positive attitude! “The best and brightest brains have a bias for the positive.” The opposite is also true: unrelenting stress/stress induced cortisol kills neurons in the hippocampus (mid brain, important for memory). Depression too has been linked with a smaller hippocampus. Around age 41, we recall more positive images than negative ones. This persists through to age 80 and beyond across all ethnic groups. In younger people, negative thinking is more effortless. (BTW, it takes 5 positives for each negative before we’ll consider a marriage a good one.)
- Hormone levels: Estrogren is essential for healthy functioning of the frontal cortex in particular.
Perhaps the best news is this:
You’re not considered “old” until you have a 4% chance of dying in the next year. Middle age is between that 1 and 4% range. From analysis of 2000 Census data, men reach middle age at 58 and women at 63.
Under this interpretation, men don’t become old until 73 and women at 78.
According to Strauch, we have to now start regarding everyone as 20 years younger!