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Monday, April 19, 2010

5 secrets of the mid life mind

5 Secrets of the Middle-Aged Mind, by Barbara Strauch

The author of a provocative new book reveals the latest research on the grown-up brain.

Over the past few years, neuroscientists have upended much of what we thought we knew about our middle-aged brains. Using scanners and studying the results of new, more sophisticated long-term studies that have followed real people as they age, researchers themselves have been amazed by what they’ve found. Here are just a few of the surprising things they’ve recently uncovered:

1. We are smarter than ever in middle age.
 In most areas, including reasoning, we improve as we age, and peak cognitive performance actually occurs in our 40s through 60s – and not in our 20s, as many had thought. It’s true that some glitches develop: Remembering names gets harder, and brain-processing speed slows down. But for most of what we do in middle age, it turns out that those skills might not matter that much. In areas as diverse as inductive reasoning and vocabulary, our brains continue to develop. What’s more, as we age we get better at getting the "gist” of arguments, making judgments of character, or even finances. And each generation is now smarter than its parents were in middle age.
2. We grow happier with age. We’ve all been conditioned to dread middle age, a time of midlife crises and empty nests. But there is no evidence for such widespread angst. Instead, research shows that we actually become happier during this period. In part, this is because our brains start acting differently by reacting less to the negative, a trait that may have developed because the grown-ups who were more optimistic could take better care of their young. And the idea that we get more depressed or troubled in midlife is a myth. New long-term studies that have followed real people in their lives for years find that men and women have a greater sense of well-being in middle age. Those who are in crisis, the studies show, have tended to have crises throughout their lives, not just in middle age.
We've all been conditioned to dread middle age. But ... we actually become happier during this period.
3. The brain does not lose millions of brain cells. For years, researchers thought our brains lost up to 30 percent of their neurons as we got older. That idea led science to largely ignore the brain as it aged. Why waste time researching something that was going to decay on a set schedule? Now, new studies show that while we can lose brain connections if they are unused, we keep most of our brain cells for as long as we live. This means that the quest to find real ways to maintain our brain cells is now being taken up in earnest.
4. The brain is like the heart: It needs blood. Nutrients, as well as certain growth chemicals produced by muscles when they exercise, are now known to cross the blood-brain barrier into the brain, which needs healthy blood flow as much as our heart. This, too, overturns longtime scientific dogma that for many years said the brain was protected, but also was so insulated that it could not be improved. There are many things we can do to keep our brains in gear. Indeed, exercise has now been shown to be one of the best things you can do. Not only does exercise pump blood through our brain’s blood vessels, but it also prompts the creation of new brain cells, even at older ages. Scientists at Columbia University and elsewhere have watched these new cells be born in the brains of animals and humans who have exercised.
5. Crossword puzzles are not enough. In fact, if we want to keep our brains sharp, we need to move beyond just recalling information we know (the main activity with crossword puzzles) and instead push them to experience new ideas to create and nourish new brain connections. This can mean anything that gets us out of our "comfort zones,” including making new friends, learning to play the cello — or even confronting ideas and people who disagree with us. One longtime researcher at Columbia University says that if we want our grown-up brains to stretch, we have to present them with a "disorienting dilemma” — in particular ideas or concepts that challenge our view of the world. As one researcher put it, we need to "shake up the cognitive egg" and push ourselves to consider other viewpoints.
The point is that we need not passively accept decline. If our brains are healthy, we can keep them functioning well, even into old age. But to do that, we need to continue to make them work — hard.
Barbara Strauch is deputy science editor at The New York Times. Her new book is The Secret Life of the Grown Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle Aged Mind. Visit Barbara’s website by clicking here.

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