How To Enjoy A Thriving Brain at Middle Age and Beyond
Many of us assume that as we get older, our brain begins to deteriorate and lose some of its normal cognitive abilities. This is a misconception, however, and, with the exception of people who suffer from conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s, the brain continues to remain vital and sharp well into a person’s old age. You might be even more surprised to learn that the brain is actually capable of improving and growing in certain areas even once you have “passed your prime.”
Scientists have found that the brain has a remarkable ability to continue growing new neurons all the way up until the day you die. The brain’s capability to grow and adapt with time is known as neuroplasticity.
Too often we decide not to try new things or learn new skills; simply because we feel we are too old and thus incapable of learning anything or adapting to a new situation. However, thanks to science, you no longer have any excuse for not moving abroad, learning how to play the piano or following a new career path.
Although the brain does tend to slow down in certain areas as you get older, the misconception that the brain starts a steady decline once you hit 40 could not be further from the truth. In her book “The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain,” science writer and New York Times editor, Barbara Strauch explains the discovery that the brain may actually be improving in certain areas as we age.
These areas include things such as inductive reasoning and verbal memory. In an interview with writer Tara Pope, Strauch commented “What we have by middle age are all sorts of connections and pathways that have been built up in our brain. Our brains are primed to navigate the world better because they’ve been navigating the world better for longer.”
So the next time you are feeling “too old” to try something new, just take in comfort in the fact that you can probably do most things better than a younger person can, simply because your brain already has the knowledge and resources you need to take on the challenge.
The reason many of us hold the view that age brings mental decline with it, is that up until quite recently, scientists still believed that brain cells simply died off and were never replaced, which would mean that as you age, you have fewer brain cells than you did in your youth.
Luckily this notion has been disproved, and we now know that despite the fact that we do tend to grow a bit more forgetful as we reach middle age, our brain continues to produce new brain cells and our capacity for learning is not diminished. Just because you can’t remember where you left your reading glasses or forgot your dentist’s appointment, doesn’t necessarily mean that your brain is on a downward spiral.
Dr. Monte Buchsbaum, director at the Neuroscience PET Laboratory has commented that “There isn’t much difference between a 25-year old brain and a 75-year old brain.”
A study carried out with 6,000 volunteers over a period of ten years found that 70% maintained the same level of brain power as they grew older. Other studies have shown that using your brain can prevent it from deteriorating, which underlines the importance of not letting your brain retire too early.
One factor that seems to play a big part in how well your brain will age is your level of education. Psychologist Margie Lachman of Brandeis University has found that education can greatly slow down the rate at which your brain ages. She found that the brains of people past midlife, who have a college degree, seem to age much more slowly than people who never completed their college education.
But don’t despair if you never went to college, the study also showed that those who had had fewer years of schooling, but began working and maintaining their brainpower by keeping their brains active, had better memory and calculating skills than those who had not.
Their scores were equal to those who had completed a college education, so even if you can’t be bothered to return to school, make sure you keep your brain active in some way.
Some researchers believe that brainpower is made up of a number of different cognitive skills. These skills are generally divided into two categories; fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is defined as the ability to come up with solutions that have nothing to do with previous experience, such as abstract thinking and pattern recognition.
This type of brainpower is known to be strongest during a person’s 20s.
Crystallized intelligence is just the opposite. It can be defined as skills that come from education and experience, such as a wide vocabulary, inductive reasoning and sound judgement. Fluid intelligence is often thought to be influenced by factors like genetics, while crystallized intelligence can be influenced by experience, personality, culture and opportunities.
This makes sense, as no one can deny that certain things get better with age, like the ability to solve disputes and think logically in a complicated situation. If you are older you can probably clearly see how much you have changed over the years.
You are likely a much calmer, level-headed individual, who takes the time to consider each factor before making decisions. On the other hand, if you are younger, you probably have at least one or two older friends or relatives who you look up to and go to for advice when you are facing a difficult problem.
Studies have shown that despite the difficulties that those in their 40s, 50s and 60s face, such as juggling work with raising kids and caring for aging parents, they tend to have a much more positive attitude towards life than their younger counterparts.
This stems from the fact that they feel more in control of their lives and are well aware of what they can do to alter their circumstances.
Researchers suspect that the reason for the relative ease with which they are able to navigate difficult situations in a calm and composed manner is that their brains have developed the ability to minimize negative thoughts and focus on the positive things in life.
A study carried out at the University of Wisconsin showed that younger adults had stronger emotional reactions to upsetting images. The researchers used brain imaging to look into the brain and see the differences between the emotional reactions of those in different age groups.
They found that in young adults, the amygdala, which regulates emotions, would light up when they were shown both negative and positive images. The middle-aged adults, however, would react only to the positive images. When they viewed negative images, their brains seemed to ignore them, screen them out or downplay the negativity.
Another similar study found that older people have a more positive outlook on life in general. The researchers monitored the volunteer’s facial expressions and eye blinks while they viewed a series of emotionally charged photos. Interestingly enough, the biggest difference between the younger and older volunteers was noted when the researchers showed them neutral photographs.
The older volunteers tended to see the neutral images in a more positive light, despite the fact that the images were neither negative nor positive. This positive predisposition is known as the “positivity offset.”
Perhaps this will give you something to look forward to. While life may not necessarily be getting easier, your outlook on life, and thus the way you experience it, will change and become more positive.
Contrary to popular belief that the brain stops producing or begins losing brain cells as it ages, a group of researchers at the University of Toronto have proven that the brain continues to grow during middle age. They found that white matter, which is made up of bundles of nerve transmitters that are insulated by a fatty molecule called myelin, keeps growing, thus providing the brain with “reserves.”
A group of researchers from McGill University in Montreal analyzed the brains of licensed London taxi drivers between the ages of 32-62.
The researchers found that the taxi drivers, who had extensive experience in navigating their taxi along many difficult routes throughout the city of London, had a much larger posterior hippocampus than those in the control group, and those who had fewer years of experience with taxi driving.
The hippocampus is directly involved in the storing of memory, and studies like these show that regardless of a person’s age, the brain is capable of growing and adapting according to a the environment and a person’s specific needs.
Clearly, when it comes to brain power, you just have to use it or lose it. If you want to keep your mind sharp well into your old age, you can’t give in to the mindset that you have passed your age of usefulness and can no longer be expected to learn or grow. With age comes wisdom, but this will only apply if you take care of yourself and keep your brain active, both mentally and physically.
According to Barbara Strauch, the two best things you can do to keep your brain healthy are regular exercise and mental stimulation. Studies have shown that physical exercise, such running or brisk walking, can improve your brain power and stimulate the growth of new brain cells.
Also ensure that you get sufficient sleep and maintain a healthy diet with all the nutrition your brain needs, such as antioxidants, Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and high-tyrosine proteins.
Whatever you do, don’t sign your brain off as being too old to handle the new. Once you do that, it really is the beginning of the end. With all your years of experience and the knowledge you have stored up, you are well-equipped to take on new learning challenges and continue growing and evolving even as you age.