I was attracted to The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind (Bookshop or Amazon*) by Barbara Strauch, a New York Times Science editor, because I have been finding myself lately forgetting people’s names, despite the strong inkling that the name I’ve forgotten is sitting there right at the tip of my tongue. Or, I’ve found myself walking into a room only to realize I’ve completely forgotten what I needed to fetch. Of course, my first thoughts are, “Oh no! Is this the beginning of the end? Is this a sign of old age, or worse yet, early signs of dementia?” (Yes, as much as I am a proponent of positive thinking, I fall victim to catastrophic thinking all the time!)
This book was both hopeful and fascinating to read. Here are what I feel are the main takeaways:
Main grown-up brain takeaways for the smart and caring
We actually have a lot to be optimistic about when it comes to getting older. Here are some of the ways our middle-aged brains (brains 40-68 years of age) get better:
- We can generate new brain cells! Scientists long believed that we only have the brain cells that we’re born with and that as we age, we only lose those cells. Most scientists now agree that we can produce new brain cells even during middle age. Some have found that regular exercise that increases heart rate and blood flow “was a potent producer of new neurons,… but also seemed to ‘selectively target’ the brain’s dentate gyrus–right in the middle of the brain’s memory machinery–an area that appears to decline with the normal aging process.”
- As we age, some of us are able to use both sides of the brain to solve problems. Some of the more agile older brains are able to call on “parts of the brain that helps the most, the frontal lobes.” Younger brains, on the other hand, use only one side of the brain at a time to solve complex tasks.
- Our brains are wired to be happier in middle age. This doesn’t mean that our brains will ignore negative stimuli. In middle age, our brains tend to orient toward positive stimuli. And, “it is not that our brain gets lazy and wants to live out its days in some happy haze. On the contrary, … it is best brains, the brightest brains, that have the most bias towards the positive.”
Favorite Quote #1:
“As you get older you can draw on objective knowledge and life experience and perhaps even intuition and they all get integrated and we can be more creative and solve complex problems that we could not solve when we were younger…I think we even get better at recognizing those complex problems to begin with. It’s only when we are older that we have the patience and the strength and the willingness to go after the core issues.” — Linda Fried, Dean of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and longtime expert in aging.
The main grown-up brain takeaway for parents
If you have a challenging teen, it doesn’t believe that you are wiser just because you are older. You have some additional ammunition. You can tell them that…
Favorite Quote #2:
“Scanning studies [of the brain] show that parts of the frontal cortex that deal more with emotional regulation atrophy less quickly than other brain sections as we age. And it’s that mix of emotional control, mental prowess, and life experience that helps us make the right calls…. As we get older, we also have more mixed emotions, a trait that works in our favor…. This more complex, nuanced response to the world slows us down restricting impulsive acts.”
The main grown-up brain takeaway for managers
If you are in a position to employ or hire people, don’t just consider the young and quick. While younger employees may be able to perform better at tasks that have to do with processing speed, older employees are more likely to perform better on more complex tasks that require knowledge or experience. “On average it takes ten years to acquire a high-level skill in a whole range of areas, from golf to chess.” In turn, a middle-aged adult may be more likely than her younger peer to “size up” or “get the gist” of a complex situation faster and with more accuracy.
Favorite Quote #3:
“Despite loss of speed and the fact that it can sometimes take older individuals longer to learn certain new skills, they navigate their work lives with increasing ease and dexterity…. [In a number of studies] older workers calling on their richly-connected, calm, pattern-recognizing consistently won expert ratings.”
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