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Good Ones

The Grown-Up Brain: Better Than The Younger Version?

CJW, May 4, 2010 9:48 AM

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Whew, dodged another bullet with good news for the over-40 set.  Our brains don't lose 30% of their mass and are surprisingly similar to teenage brains in that they are still developing.  Yes, that's right, unlike the mythology floating around out there, middle age brains are not stagnating in formaldehyde.  In fact, "on the whole, they are better (than in our 20's)". 

Or, as Barbara Strauch puts it, when referring to the middle-aged brain (modern middle age as defined by ages 40-65) in a The New York Times interview today:  "It's not some static blob that is going inexorably downhill."  I think we all know this instinctively when we compare an older dynamic person who is involved and sharp as a tack, compared to a much younger counterpart who by juxtaposition, appears like a slug, which is counter-intuitive.   So what are some of the key things that make the difference? 

 Strauch, author of  teenage brain development book,"The Primal Teen," has many surprising revelations in her new book we've been anticipating, "The Secret Life Of The Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents Of The Middle Aged Mind" (click this link to go to Amazon).  As advocates of life-long learning
and development outside of formal classroom
studies, we are happy to
see research supporting the necessity 
of creating a culture of learning and growth, at
all times in one's life. 
stauchbook.brain
The bad news?  Well, there are issues with short-term memory processing speed in middle aged brains . . . so we are little slower in that department.

Excerpts from interview: 

Q. So what kinds of things does a middle-aged brain do better than a younger brain?

A.  Inductive reasoning and problem solving - the logical use of your brain and actually getting to solutions. We get the gist of an argument better. We're better at sizing up a situation and reaching a creative solution. They found social expertise peaks in middle age. That's basically sorting out the world: are you a good guy or a bad guy? Harvard has studied how people make financial judgments. It peaks, and we get the best at it in middle age.


The next one though is where she slays the myth dragons:

Q.  Doesn't that make sense, since our young adult lives are often marked by bad decisions?

A.  I think most of us think that while we make bad decisions in our 20s, we also have the idea that we were the sharpest we ever were when we were in college or graduate school. People think if I tried to go to engineering school or medical school now, I couldn't do it. Because of these memory problems that happen in middle age, we tend to think of our brains as, on the whole, worse than in our 20s. But on the whole, they're better.


Based upon extensive studies and research, the elephant in the room is EXERCISE (we didn't know quite how much it makes the difference):

Q.  Is there anything you can do to keep your brain healthy and improve the deficits, like memory problems?

A.  There's a lot of hype in this field in terms of brain improvement. I did set out to find out what actually works and what we know. What we do with our bodies has a huge impact on our brains. Our brains are more like our hearts in that everything you do for your heart is thought to be equally as good or better for your brain. Exercise is the best studied thing you can do to your brain. It increases brain volume, produces new baby brain cells in grownup brains. Even when our muscles contract, it produces growth chemicals. Using your body can help your brain.

Socializing and learning new activities are good, but not as effective as having a good ole' debate with someone you disagree with:

Q.  What about activities like learning to play an instrument or learning a foreign language?

A.  The studies on this are slim. We've all been told to do crossword puzzles. Learning a foreign language, walking a different way to work, all that is an effort to make the brain work hard. And it's true we need to make our brains work hard. One of the most intriguing findings is that if you talk to people who disagree with you, that helps your brain wake up and refine your arguments and shake up the cognitive egg, which is what you want to do.

The Daily Riff featured Strauch in an previous post, "Can O'Reilly and Olbermann  Stop Our Brains From Aging?", a humorous take on brain development and keeping our minds young.

                                                                                         ---C.J.

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