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Your Mind at Middle Age: A Review of The Grown-Up Brain

BrainMore or less every night for the last seven years, I’ve sung “The Star-Spangled Banner” to our kid as he drifts off to sleep. He looks forward to it, and sings along about half the time. It’s a sweet, patriotic moment—except for all the times I blank on the words.

It’s not that I hate America, or somehow don’t really know the lyrics: I’ve sung the anthem more than 2500 times over the past seven years—it’s engraved in my mind. Every six months or so, though, I lose all recollection of three or fourlines for several nights in a row. (Like these poor souls [YouTube], except with less talent.) After about three nights, the lyrics come back, and everything’s back to normal.

While I haven’t started forgetting names yet—yet—this lyrical blackout has always felt like an harbinger of middle age, or of absentminded professordom, and so it was with great interest that I picked up Barbara Strauch’s The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind (Viking, 2010). Strauch brings good news: Unlike previous models of aging, which saw mental function as a long, slow death, new brain science suggests that the middle-aged brain continues to develop new functions and abilities for a very long time, especially with a little care.

Strauch is the deputy science editor and helah and medical science editor at the New York Times, and you can tell: The book is brisk and clear, with a journalist’s preference for the illustrative example.

The book begins with several reassuring points: that such maladies as midlife crises and empty nest syndrome aren’t real; that middle-aged people (here defined as roughly 40-68 [woot! still not middle aged!]) continue to perform well on cognitive tests, often outperforming younger whippersnappers; and the observation that many people are happier in middle age than at other times of their lives.

Strauch describes several different kinds of research, all of which potentially have good news about middle-aged brains. These come in two different types: developmental research about what goes on on the brain as we age, and research into neuroplasticity, or the way the brain changes in response to the environment (cognitive demands, food, overall health, experiences, etc.).

Developmentally, it turns out that, while we might not be growing tons of new neurons as we age, our brains do gain more myelin, the fatty substance that facilitates connections between neurons, for many decades. Also, it turns out that the brain compensates for aging by getting its hemispheres to work together. This “bilateralization” allows the brain to work more efficiently than it does at earlier times of life. Education helps facilitate this process.

It’s not all good news, of course. The mild forgetfulness associated with middle age—where are my keys? why did I put my Pynchon in the pantry?—is real, an artifact of distraction, a surfeit of things worth remembering. (In my example, it doesn’t help that the national anthem is the last song I sing, so my brain’s already processing what I should work on after the kid’s asleep, even though I’m only conscious of finishing the bedtime routine.)

While the brain might be programmed to improve in middle age, even nature could use some help. What’s more, the new research delightfully confirms some ancient wisdom. First, a sound mind really does seem to be associated with a sound body. Recent research associates exercise with brain growth and improved performance. (Noted by Meagan Timney in this space a few weeks back.) Likewise, mom’s advice to eat your fruits and vegetables stands your brain in good stead. The research Strauch cites are bullish on antioxidants’ ability to maintain brain health.

Apparently, not only can an old dog learn new tricks, but its brain will become stronger for the effort. Whether its mastering complex video games, learning a new language, or even making new friends, the deliberate attempt to force your brain out of its old patterns pays off in increased cognitive function, well into old age. I would have liked to see more discussion of mindfulness/meditation practices in this section, as those seem related to brain function, too.

The book has a few drawbacks. First, like any book of popular science, it ends up occasionally getting out in front of the science, particularly in areas around diet. And there’s not a lot of skepticism directed toward the claims around neuroplasticity, even when people have financial interests involved. (In fact, Strauch’s preferred rhetorical trick is to cite the formerly skeptical.) The most disappointing, however, has to do with class. Consider, for example, a passage such as this one (she’s quoting Sherry Willis, the noted researcher):

“And it’s odd to think that the brain would not continue to develop. . . . Most professional jobs are very stimulating and complex and, even in leisure time, we have more opportunities to take up complicated things like photography.” (26)

The book tends to address itself to the holders of these professional jobs, rather than to grappling seriously with the implications of this new science for our social wellbeing. As a result, there can be a breathlessness about new strategies we can try (in our leisure), or drugs we’ll have access to, when what seems to be needed is a serious re-investment in education. (Chapter 8 explains the lifelong benefits in brain health that seem to accrue with education.) The main social woe that Strauch seems concerned with is age discrimination, which I don’t even think would make my top 5 or 10 list of social problems or opportunities associated with mental functioning.

That said, this is a book that will likely interest many readers of ProfHacker. It brings good news about our mental lives, and recommends as a path to “continued success” the ProfHackerish advice of “‘deliberate practice,’ a commitment to working at a skill over and over and meticulously zeroing in on faults” (25).

Image by Flickr user Liz Henry (yes, that’s her brain) / Creative Commons Licensed

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