How the Brain Benefits With Aging

Why you're getting smarter with age--and other welcome surprises

By Barbara Strauch from The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain

Recently, I tried—really tried—to buy a book for my book club.

I went online and ordered The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. Then, 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.

A few days later, as I was jogging in the park, a faint bell went off in my head, and I thought, I bet I ordered the wrong book. At home, I checked my e-mail, and, sure enough, we were supposed to read The Archivist, by Martha Cooley.

I’d ordered the wrong book—twice.

And 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 turned out that she’d gone to the library and had just as carefully selected a copy of The Alienist, by Caleb Carr.

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How the Brain Benefits With AgingIllustration by Bryan Christie DesignAs you age, memory and speed decline, but experience makes up for it.

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

We all worry about getting old. We all worry about getting sick. But we really worry about losing our minds. Will we forget to tie our shoes or zip our flies? Will we fumble our words and fall into our soup? Are our brains on an inevitable slide?

The quick answer is no. I looked into this subject partly because I wrote a book some years ago on the teenage brain. After it came out, I’d sometimes give talks on the topic for juvenile-justice or school groups, and I would usually be driven to the airport by the person who had arranged the event. More often than not, that person, like me, was middle-aged, and as we drove along, he or she would say something like “You know, you should write a book about my brain. It’s horrible—I can’t remember a thing. I forget where I’m going or why. And the names—the names are awful. It’s scary.” I would smile and nod, thinking of my own middle-aged brain. Where do all the names go?

Eventually, I spent considerable time tracking down those lost names, talking to researchers and digging into the latest science to find out what goes wrong in middle age and what it means. And I found something unexpected—not bad news but good.

Yes, the brain at middle age has lost a step. Our problems are not imaginary, and our worries are not unreasonable. But neuroscientists have found that the middle-aged brain actually has surprising talents. It’s developed powerful systems that can cut through the intricacies of complex problems to find concrete answers. It more calmly manages emotions and information and is cheerier than in younger years. Indeed, one new series of fascinating studies suggests that the way our brains age may give us a broader perspective on the world, a capacity to see patterns, connect the dots, even be more creative.

“From what we know now,” says Laura Carstensen, PhD, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University, “I’d have to say that the middle-aged brain is downright formidable.”

All this may be hard to believe. A friend once told me that she sometimes catches herself putting the bananas in the laundry chute. How can we possibly be smarter and be tossing the bananas into the laundry basket?

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First, some evidence that we are, indeed, a bit smarter, at least in some ways. For that, look at one of the longest, largest, and most respected studies of people as they age, the Seattle Longitudinal Study, which has tracked the mental prowess of 6,000 people for more than 40 years. The study found that, on average, participants performed better on cognitive tests in middle age than they had in early adulthood. From age 40 through their 60s, people did better on tests of vocabulary, spatial orientation skills (imagining what an object would look like if it were rotated 180 degrees), and inductive reasoning than they had when they were in their 20s.

Sure, we feel dumber. Studies explain that too: They show that we really do have more difficulty with name retrieval, particularly the names of those we’ve not seen in a while. Our brains also slow down a bit. For instance, if chess players compete in a game that depends on speed—say they’re given a few seconds to move a piece—younger players usually beat older players. And brain scanners show that the parts of the brain that specialize in daydreaming get more active as we age—no wonder we feel so distractible. But the bottom line is that the middle-aged brain can deliver in ways that matter.

Some of my favorite research on this looked at people in jobs where performance really counts: air-traffic controllers and pilots. In both studies, the researchers put older and younger professionals into simulators to see how they responded to demanding tasks, like coping with computer crashes and conflicting information (for the air-traffic controllers) or avoiding traffic and keeping track of cockpit instruments (for the pilots). Younger controllers were a little faster than older ones; younger pilots performed better than older ones early in the three-year study. But the seasoned pros in both professions did just as well or better on what mattered: keeping planes apart.

You see the same thing in studies on bridge players, chess masters, and bank managers: Memory and speed decline, but experience makes up for it. “If what you are doing depends on knowledge, then you’re going to do very well as you get older,” says psychology professor Neil Charness, PhD, of Florida State University. “And it makes sense. Which would you rather have on your team: a highly experienced 55-year-old chess master or a 25-year-old novice?”

What accounts for the against-all-odds prowess of the middle-aged brain? Practice, for starters—all those years spent wrangling planes or managing a household or heading to the office. Compensatory strategies, too—like making lists, lots of them, and pausing before you go into a party to summon the names of the people you’re likely to see. But we’re also aided by measurable brain changes. Some make us more optimistic as we age. Consider the amygdala—a structure deep in the brain that operates as your body’s Homeland Security Department, the alert system that assesses potential threats. Researchers have found that as we get older, our amygdala reacts less to negative things. It still responds when there’s a real threat but is less likely to get fired up every time a passerby frowns at you. That seems to help us do a better job of maintaining emotional stability. And we all know that those who can calmly assess a situation generally have an advantage.

Older brains are also better at making connections, research shows. Yes, you take longer to assimilate new information. But faced with information that relates to what you already know, your brain tends to work quicker and smarter, discerning patterns and jumping to the logical end point.

A friend of mine who’s been a doctor for more than 30 years said she can now often instantly evaluate a situation, making it easier to come up with effective solutions. “When I walk into a hospital room, there’s a lot in my head already,” she said. “In many cases, I can foresee what will happen, and that helps a lot.”

All of this adds up to exciting news—and a dilemma. After all, age discrimination is a fact. In 2002, researcher Joanna Lahey, PhD, now at Texas A&M University, sent out 4,000 résumés and found that a younger worker was more than 40 percent more likely to be called in for an interview, compared with a worker over age 50.

We’ve extended our lives by dozens of years, and we’re finding tantalizing new ways to extend our brain spans too. But we haven’t taken a nanosecond to think about what to do with all those better years and better brains.

We need a new plan. Right now, we have to do too much in our early and middle adulthood—we frantically juggle kids and work, and it can feel like everything gets short shrift. Then later, when our brains are still blooming, we’re often forced to stop working; we’re made irrelevant. Perhaps it’s time for a middle-age revolution. The best way to start, to my mind, is to finally give our middle-aged brains the respect they deserve.

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ADAPTED FROM “THE SECRET LIFE OF THE GROWN-UP BRAIN,” COPYRIGHT © 2010 BY BARBARA STRAUCH, IS PUBLISHED AT $26.95 BY VIKING, 375 HUDSON ST., NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10014