Grandma Will Save Civilization

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.

Alice Walker (Flickr)Alice Walker hints of this in her essay, All Praises to the Pause.

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.


  1. says

    With all the doom and gloom out there related to aging, this is such wonderful news. And your mention of the wonders of myelin makes me (someone with MS) far more determined to make the most of the myelin I have left. I’m delighted you linked this post to the GRAND Social. Thank you for joining us!

  2. says

    Lynne, this is a great Christmas present. I’ve been a bit depressed lately (which usually happens in December). This is another step toward the light. I feel… smart, savvy and articulate! ;D

  3. says

    I have found that I have reached an age where I no longer feel the need for approval in the same way that I did when I was younger. It is allowing me to do and be whom I want to be more easily. If someone ignores me it is often because I simply wish to be ignored. Yes, we unfortunately live in a very youth oriented society, but I am hoping that our generation is helping to change that.

    • says

      Laura, I think that “no longer needing approval” stage is a natural development for healthy, satisfied people. We approve of ourselves, for the most part, and that sort of takes care of everything else. I think as we learn and talk about the benefit of having a more seasoned, experienced brain, the culture will change, so talk away!

  4. Nancie says

    It is so encouraging to read about this type of research. Maybe this is why I found doing graduate work in my late 40’s so much easier than a BA in my 20’s. Of course, the partying could had something to do with the BA taking so long!

    • says

      Yah, Nancie, the partying got me, too. But when you’re older and the world seems more familiar, research into the unknown is more stimulating, I think. Another bennie of the older brain.

  5. says

    This is so interesting Lynne, and effective fodder for your quest to lead us to an “attitude adjustment” about the aging process. Do you suppose, discernment skills get honed (through years of hard knocks) to the point where we become very selective about what we spend our emotional energy on and how we spend it?. I find myself feeling that way and it’s actually a relief. And who would think being positive takes more energy than being negative?. Speaking for myself, I know I can fall into habits-good or bad- and whatever habit I’m in gets the attention. Nether here nor there. You always get me rambling whIch means you get me thinking (and that’s good in staving off dementia!). On that note, I’ll wish you and yours a wonderful Christmas season and will continue to look forward to more of your marvelous “mental calisthenics,earned-wisdom and good humor in the New Year. Love ya, Sistah! :-)

    • says

      Yes, Sistah, I do think our discernment skills get honed – we become squinty-eyed, more thoughtful, less reactive. And thank God for that. I do love your thoughtful comments, though, and I’m honored that you say I get you thinking. This is all so exciting for me to learn about. I knew there had to be a lot of good in getting older, and I’m like a detective, finding it. PS thank you so much for the Christmas card! You are too thoughtful. Blessings and Merry Christmas, my friend.

  6. says

    I love this! What we need perhaps is an elevator speech or a perfect sound bite that captures the essence of this amazing information and leaves the naysayers speechless.

    • says

      Yep, but it’s probably too much to capture in one sound bite. A big smirk might do it when dealing with the general public, but also taking the time to tell our kids about the good things ahead.

    • says

      Jots, there’s a bit of controversy over invisibleness – my writing group was debating this last Thursday. Some thought it was in the eye of the “victim” or recipient, and others thought men don’t have the problem. I wonder if it’s true, and if so, if invisibleness is a result of our lifetime culture as women of being trained for politeness, putting others first, not occupying enough space in the room. I did experience invisibility on one occasion where it was VERY obvious, and it really pissed me off, but maybe these clerks were just stupid to everybody. In future, I intend to walk tall, shoulders back, big voice (and smiling).

      • says

        Food for thought….thank you for that.
        I’m beginning to believe, however, that it is a cultural
        “thing”. OAPs (Old Age Pensioners) and children are revered much more (me thinks) in countries other than our own. Just me thinking….probably too much…again.

        Happiest of Holidays to you and yours….


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