When I was a kid, my idea of what it might feel like to be old had been captured in this Beatles song:
When I get older, losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine,
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?
Sixty-four was ages away in my mind. It was something my grandparents might have been. Whatever it was, it was old. You’d practically had it by then.
Sixty-four isn’t old. If you’re between 40 and 68, you’re doing better than you were twenty years ago.
The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain lays it all out.
Barbara Strauch, the author, explains that middle age is practically brand new in our species, a product of our increasing lifespan in the West. Scientists have only recently begun studying it.
Surely by the time you’re pushing fifty, it’s pretty much downhill from there, people might have once thought. It’s only a matter of time before parts of you are all used up, broken down, and ready to be replaced or given up on. Maybe not today or tomorrow – but the decline has set in, and there’s no turning back the clock.
Completely baseless, according to research cited in the book.
In middle age, your brain is actually still developing. In no way is it static or inevitably turning to mush.
Myelin is the fatty material that insulates nerve fibers. It increases the speed at which signals move around your neural network. Myelin levels actually increase the older you get. Its growth takes off in middle age.
Your brain is improving in other ways as well.
First, though, the big difference between your brain at 20 and your brain at, say, forty-five is processing speed. It’s slower, so you’re more easily distracted when your start to focus on something.
According to Strauch, processing speed mainly affects the beginning of your concentration on something. That’s why researchers recommend that you consciously focus at the very beginning when you set out to complete a task.
This slower processing speed, allowing for distraction, is how you end up in a room with no idea why you walked in.
Strauch says scientists used to think processing speed underpinned every aspect of brain functioning. But they now know it doesn’t. So the decline in processing speed doesn’t really matter that much in middle age.
There’s also no disputing the struggle with memory as you get older, particularly episodic memory and names.
What the author points out is that in spite of the fact that you’ve drawn a blank, those memories haven’t vanished. It’s just that your brain struggles now with requests for names and facts that it can’t associate with anything else.
It’s like trying to find the right book in a well-stocked library, says Strauch. It’s not a storage problem; it’s a retrieval problem.
Sound and meaning are stored in different parts of the brain, and over time, the link can decline. But these memories can pop up if someone gives you a hint.
To help yourself remember names as you get older, she says try to attach the name to something else. For example, when meeting Joe, who happens to have bushy eyebrows, giving him the name “Joe Bushy-Eyebrows” (in your mind, of course!) will help you remember his name. The simple word “Joe” might be too arbitrary for your brain to retrieve easily.
And to help yourself remember a task you need to do, she suggests imagining yourself doing it. This will create a neural footprint that will actually help trigger your memory.
Distraction and memory loss are common concerns the older you get, but what’s good is that they in no way signal any major loss of brain cells. Strauch says brains shrink about 2% per decade. The old idea that we lose 30% of our brain cells is completely wrong. You actually keep most of your brain cells.
What researchers will tell you is that since you keep these cells, there are ways to keep your brain running well.
The fact is that in middle age, entire areas of cognitive functioning are improving.
- Inductive reasoning is better than it was in your twenties.
- You are better at recognizing categories.
- You are better at sizing up situations.
- You are better at getting the gist of a matter.
- Your social expertise has never been better.
A sense of well-being peaks in middle age, across occupations and ethnic groups. Your brain is actually becoming less responsive to negative stimuli.
In all these areas, your brain is functioning at its best.
Over the years various “brain boosters” have been touted, but a couple of things have proven to be effective. One thing that’s good for your brain is being open to new ideas. Don’t shy away from confronting ideas that are different from your own. Talk with people you disagree with. These kinds of challenges sharpen brain functioning.
But the best thing you can do for your brain, by far, is exercise. According to researchers, anything that impacts your body impacts your brain. Your brain is like your heart; everything you do for your heart is just as beneficial to your brain.
Vigorous exercise increases brain volume and actually produces new brain cells. Cognitive functioning goes up.
All of this brings to mind more words from the Beatles:
I’ve got to admit it’s getting better,
A little better all the time…
- Lennon, J. and McCartney, P. 1967. Getting Better [Recorded by the Beatles]. On Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band [Record]. London: Parlophone.
Lennon, J. and McCartney, P. 1967. When I’m Sixty-Four [Recorded by the Beatles]. On Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band [Record]. London: Parlophone.
Strauch, Barbara. 2010. The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain. New York: Viking Press.