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This is your brain on middle age | Pamdemonium
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This is your brain on middle age

May 18, 2010

A U.S. Census worker was on our street last weekend trying to contact residents who had not returned their questionnaires. I remembered putting ours in a pile so it wouldn’t get lost, going on vacation and never seeing it again. Convinced I had recycled the paper in error, I waived her over, eager to stand up and be counted.

We weren’t on her list, which was odd, but she had a blank form and we dispatched the questions quickly. “I suppose there is a remote chance I sent it in and just don’t remember,” I said. “I have a list,” she said.

Yup. On the list of received Census questionnaires we were. We both laughed. Now without a spare, she ripped up the form we just finished. My insides churned and I wished for a handy hole to hide in.

It happens. It will happen again, but Barbara Strauch makes me feel better about it. Strauch is the deputy science editor and health and medical science editor at the New York Times and author of “The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind.” I bought the book last month after hearing Strauch interviewed at length on NPR.

Much of what we’ve come to accept as fact about our brains in midlife is false. The decline isn’t as inevitable or as steep as we thought. Yes, we forget where they keys are and the name of the person across the room at the cocktail party. Processing speed slows down, some, and we are easily distracted.

But the title of Chapter Two says it all: “The Best Brains of Our Lives: A Bit Slower, but So Much Better.” A group of middle aged people performed better on four important cognitive abilities – vocabulary, verbal memory, spatial orientation and inductive reason – than they had in their 20s. The same people!

Generally, researchers are finding that middle life brains cope better, handle conflicting information better, make decisions better and read people and situations better. They recognize patterns and juggle multiple, complex tasks. The actual neuroscience of what goes on inside our heads is great, and not too taxing, reading, but Strauch’s conclusions and the research that backs them up make me happy.

That may be no accident. Turns out – surprise – middle-aged people are generally happier than the younger set, too. As we get older, we focus more on the positive. Part of it is perspective – speaking only for myself, I can say at age 49 I’ve had plenty of crappy things happen in my life but I’m reasonably okay. I know Crisis X isn’t the end of the world, until, well, it really is. This “glass half-full” approach of course is not universal but researchers believe brains process negative and positive information differently at different ages.

For the record, Strauch defines modern middle age as 40 until “the 60s.” For the sake of my marriage and several friendships, I’ve decided to define it as 45 until the 60s. Either way, I’m in. And I am going to get back to the book. I’m only on Page 76. I think. I keep forgetting where I left off.

Okay, that one was a joke. The Census story? Painfully true, every word.



Karen Price May 18, 2010 at 10:50 pm

But… but… I’m 60 now! What happens to me?

admin May 18, 2010 at 11:08 pm

As it happens, women do better longer on verbal memory and vocab and their scores on cognitive tests, in this one big study, kept climbing later into their 60s. I know aerobic exercise helps, too, because it gets oxygen into the brain. Fascinating book.

Katy Read May 19, 2010 at 12:40 am

I have a few stories like that. Including a frantic search for car keys, clock ticking to son’s first hockey game, pawing through purse looking unsuccessfully for spare, starting to panic … keys found IN HAND. I like to think our brains are just so crammed with information that bits and pieces fall through the cracks now and then.

admin May 19, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Is Cy playing hockey? Send pix. The book says those bits and pieces are still there but the issue is retrieval, not storage. Stay tuned. Next Tuesday I’ll share with folks what she says about exercising the brain. Even at 60, it is not too late! Thanks for reading. Spread the word.

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