A few days ago, a blogger friend wrote that she was discouraged about getting older. She posted this: [Read more…]
This is the last of four posts about all the cool things going on in your aging brain. [Read more…]
This is the third of four posts celebrating the good news about the way the brain ages.
There’s something called the Grandmother Hypothesis, so named because researchers discovered that chimpanzees lived longer if they were part of a band that included elder females, who helped the mothers find and share food.
Of course, researchers speculate about the application of this hypothesis to humans. One benefit of having elders in the tribe is because at about age forty, people start getting really good at regulating their emotions. According to studies in 2003 and 2004 by MIT researcher Mara Mather:
Although the brain wants to focus on the negative (it’s a survival skill), the aging brain makes a deliberate effort to focus on the positive, which is actually harder. Studies show that emotions grow stronger, not weaker, as people age.
Mather theorizes this positive focus may be an evolutionary trait. When we’re young, we need cautionary knowledge so we focus on threats more, but at older age, we’ve accumulated so much of that cautionary knowledge that we view danger in a more complex fashion.
This ability may have evolved because it works well for the species in general. As we get older, we have more mixed emotions, allowing for a more nuanced response to the world. This slows us down, restricting impulsive acts, and that’s good for individual and group survival. Especially since our world is becoming so much more complicated.
I am convinced that in earlier times women during menopause drifted naturally to the edge of the village, constructed for themselves a very small hut, and with perhaps one animal for company – and one that didn’t talk! – gave themselves over to a time without form, without boundaries. They were fishing in deep waters, reflecting on a lifetime of activity and calling up, without consciously attempting to do so, knowledge that would mean survival and progression of the tribe.
More and more good news:
1. According to the Seattle Longitudinal study, our brains are awesome after forty. Seattle tracked the same 6000 people for forty years, finding that people reached their highest cognitive ability from age forty through seventy. This was in four of six areas: vocabulary, verbal memory, spatial orientation and inductive reasoning.
2. We’re also, in the new century, aging more slowly. Researcher Elizabeth Zelinsky found that her group at age seventy tested similar in cognitive ability to the historic levels of women in their mid-fifties.
3. Here’s another goody for you: There’s a substance called myelin, the fatty outer coating of the trillions of nerve fibers in the brain. The white matter acts like insulation on a wire and makes the connections work. Get this: the development of myelin in the brain area relating to language peaks from the 50s to the 60s (2001, Bartzokis). The insulation allows the neuron to recover faster after signals have been sent and get ready to send the next signal more quickly, giving brain cells what Bartzokis calls greater bandwidth. “As myelin increases, it builds connections that help us make sense of our surroundings.”
I was going to end with a wisecrack like I usually do, but I guess I’d rather get serious. We often feel unhappy about getting older, because we’re moving closer to the Great Beyond. Also, we’re inundated with messages from the media 24/7 saying we’re pointless if we’re not young. It’s easy to fall in line and drink the Kool-Aid.
But once you know about all the brain-benefits of age, you might talk about them more. You might celebrate the good news (“I’m more intuitive at this age. Really!”) and spread it around. It might become common wisdom, and attitudes might begin to change in this youth-obsessed country. Wouldn’t that be the gift that keeps on giving? Like to our kids?
Merry Christmas, my friends. Next week, we’ll talk about how one woman was able to continue thriving mentally until she died, in spite of having severe, advanced Alzheimer’s disease. See you Friday.
This is the first in a series of four posts celebrating the aging brain.
I’m looking for my glasses, but I can’t find them because they’re on my head. So I find my backups and try to put them on, but discover I’m already wearing a pair.
I would feel stupid except at times, I feel downright brilliant. This has probably happened to you, too. Maybe you’re listening to a younger person explain a problem at work or you’re reading an article in the news, and suddenly all the facts connect and you come up with such an awesome solution you want to call the Nobel commission.
Except you don’t quite trust what happened, because only yesterday you came home from the grocery store and put the bananas in the hamper. Maybe what you’re having is some kind of brain flair before the cells die. You never shine so brightly as just before, you know – pffffft.
Stop worrying. Both things really are happening. New research confirms that you’re both more addled and more brilliant than ever before in your life.
If you’re a typical middle-aged* person, the glasses and bananas are real, and so is the intellect.
The science of the aging brain is quite new; conclusions being drawn just in the past few years prove that we have more to be excited about than ever. For example, it wasn’t that long ago that we were told brain cells only died; none were regenerated. However, that has now been proven false. The brain DOES produce new cells, primarily in the area relative to memory.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In a great new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, author (and science editor for the NY Times) Barbara Strauch produces tons of evidence that, while our older brains definitely have some weaknesses, they also develop amazing, surprising, even beautiful workarounds. In fact, the older brain is gearing up, not slowing down. All during December I’ll be telling you what I learned, and – plagiarism alert! – excerpting heavily from her book. That’s because I can’t say it any better than Barbara did.
Here’s some good news: in older age, you’re smarter. This is because you’ve accumulated such a wealth of data, and the human brain has a special talent: deduction. Per Ms. Strauch:
The brain builds strength (over a lifetime) by building up millions upon millions of patterns, allowing us to “recognize even vaguely similar patterns and draw appropriate conclusions.”
One researcher, E. Goldberg, calls it “mental magic.”
“Frequently,” says Goldberg, “when I am faced with what would appear from the outside to be a challenging problem, the grinding mental computation is somehow circumvented, rendered, as if by magic, unnecessary. The solution comes effortlessly, seemingly by itself…I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight…”
According to Barbara Strauch, when faced with new information, the older brain might take longer to assimilate and use it. But faced “with information that in some way – even a very small way-relates to what’s already known, the middle-aged brain works quicker and smarter, discerning patterns and jumping to the logical endpoint.”
This is an evolutionary triumph. We’re not called homo sapiens – thinking man – for nothing.
Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that we’re more easily distracted and more likely to lose focus as we age. This is because as you get older, new information comes into the part of your brain that’s good at daydreaming. So when you’re trying to read a newspaper in Starbucks and somebody’s jabbering loudly on his cellphone and you can’t concentrate, it’s because the daydreaming mechanism is doing a crappy job of managing the new info.
You can mitigate this with discipline and practice, but you have to work on it. Personally, I think daydreaming is a treat, and I’m not sure I want to curtail it.
*Definition of middle age, per Barbara Strauch, is that long period between youth and old age. I like it. I like it a whole lot better than assuming you’re at the halfway point. Because as vibrant and kick-ass as I am, I’m sure as hell not going to make it to 116.