In some ways we get smarter as we age
mimagephotography/Shutterstock Dr. Tarawneh points out that although some mental processes decline as we age, not all do. “Some of our brain functions such as short-term memory for minor details, processing speed, attention, the ability to multi-task, and visuospatial functions show some decline with healthy aging,” she says. “On the other hand, language functions tend to remain well-preserved as we get older.” In fact, research from Harvard and MIT show that arithmetic skills don’t peak until age 50, and vocabulary and “cumulative intelligence” (all the facts and knowledge you’ve acquired) peak even later, into our early 70s. To keep your brain young, start these habits your 80-year-old brain will thank you for doing today.
The brain can adapt
Golubovy/Shutterstock We now know that the way the brain works isn’t fixed, and can “recruit” other areas to compensate for damaged parts when needed. For example, we know that in certain cases, brain injury leads to brilliance. “The brain can adapt to injury such as stroke or head trauma, a process referred to as ‘brain plasticity,'” Dr. Tarawneh says. “The brain can ‘rewire’ itself so that healthy neurons can form new networks, or modify existing networks to compensate for the damaged parts of the brain.” Experiments in people who were born blind show that they use the visual parts of their brain, even though they can’t see. “One of the most important discoveries in the field is that brain activity can stimulate the process [of revising connections between neurons], which is referred to as activity-dependent plasticity,” she says. “Therefore, brain exercises and rehabilitation is a crucial step in recovery from brain injury, as it allows the brain to ‘re-learn’ functions that were lost due to trauma, in a way that is very similar to what is seen in early brain development.” Don’t miss these extraordinary stories of people whose brain injuries unleashed hidden talents.
The brain doesn’t mature until age 25
DC Studio/Shutterstock Although we’ve already legally become an adult, our brains aren’t fully grown up until around age 25 according to science. And your brain can continue to grow long past your 20s. Dr. Tarawneh says the brain matures from back to front, with the “prefrontal cortex” the last to finish developing. “The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-order thinking—referred to as executive function—such as judgment and problem-solving, decision-making, complex planning, organized thinking, personality development, and impulse control,” she says. “The reward centers of the brain are the most active during adolescence but are back to normal levels of activity by the mid-20s, so individuals become less sensitive to peer pressure and much better at risk management during their 20s compared to the adolescent years.” Don’t miss these proven ways to make better decisions.