Middle-Aged Brains are Smarter Even Though We Tend to Put our Keys in the Refrigerator

Beautiful Brain
The Stupendous Middle-Aged Brain, picture from Dreamstime.com

Of course my keys are in the laundry basket. Of course my wallet fell out of the pouch I forgot to zip. My middle-aged brain forgets the name I looked up only two minutes ago, how to fix that thing that WordPress always does, and what you just said. Last week, my wife came out of the garage with a piece of paper. “Honey, did you need this list of CDs?” Such relief!  “I was frothing at the mouth looking for that! Where did you find it!” On top of the frozen bagels.

At middle-age, we lose episodic memory. More on that later, if I make myself a note not to forget to write that part. As we age, we do lose cognitive function, and we incur an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. But our Over-40 brains also have a lot going for them, as I learned from Barbara Strauch’s fascinating book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind.

Debunking the Brain Myths: Smarter than a 25-year-old

Believe it or not, we are smarter than we were and, in some ways, demonstrably smarter than a 25-year-old. Strauch cites a number of studies that have had me crowing with pride for the last week. For example, psychologist Sherry Willis of Pennsylvania State University ran a forty-year longitudinal study on the mental prowess of 6,000 participants. This Seattle Study, which covered people of multiple genders, ages, and occupations, found that they performed better on cognitive tests between age forty and sixty than at any other time in their life.

The cognitive tests included vocabulary, verbal memory, spatial orientation, inductive reasoning, number ability, and perceptual speed. Participants beat their younger versions decisively in the first four categories during their middle-aged span, something of a surprise to the researchers. Other studies have also found that the ability to do basic arithmetic improves and peaks as late as age 50. The one clear cognitive advantage for the younger brain was in perceptual speed — how fast you can push a button when you see a colored object. Yes, the young are better at zapping things in video games.

Brain Scans
Brainscans, photo from Wall Street Journal

Middle-aged Super Powers: Better Insight, More Creativity, Wiser, Happier

Your brain doesn’t turn to complete mush at 40, despite that thing with the keys. We get better at social expertise and judgment. We refer to it as wisdom, but wisdom can even be defined and measured. It’s a mix of “emotional control, mental prowess, and real life experience” according to Strauch. When cognitive abilities are high, adding experience allows for better understanding of complex issues, such as handling money or sticky social situations.

Middle-aged people often say they can “see” a solution in a way that they didn’t went they were in college. It’s often chalked up to pure experience, but there’s more going on. Studies with older people show that they seem to see the core of an issue easier; they get to the gist, that ability to grasp the main idea quicker and get to the solution. We recognize patterns and groupings which leads to better judgment. One scientist, Frances Benes at Harvard, thinks it might be the build-up of myelin, the fatty outer coating that helps insulate the brain. The extra myelin allows neurons to recover faster after sending signals, almost like adding extra bandwidth to give the older brain a more integrated view of the world.

Examples abound of artists, musicians, and writers doing some of their best work late into their seventies and eighties. Those examples are often treated like anomalies, but perhaps they are the norm. If an older person is able to grasp patterns better, then they can create new patterns more easily or represent the gist in a way that they couldn’t do when younger.

In addition, older people have a reputation for serenity which might have an evolutionary cause. Serenity is sometimes conflated with senility–older people are deemed placid because they just don’t understand anymore how stressful everything is. However, studies have shown that’s not a vacant calm smile but a purposeful one. “It is not that our brain gets lazy and wants to live out its days in some happy haze…it’s the best brains, the brightest brains, that have the most bias toward the positive.” When shown positive and negative images, older people looked longer at the negative ones, but, when asked later, spoke more about the positive ones. Processing positive and negative information varies as a function of age, and positive tends to win over.

One rationale towards why older people accentuate the positive is a possible link with something called the Grandmother Hypothesis. This scientific theory postulates that people who had supportive, living grandmothers in their tribe live longer–the sunnier disposition of that elder allows the group to survive.

“If that grandmother has an amygdala that allows her to be calmer…that might give everyone an advantage. It is cognition serving survival.”
–Stanford researcher Laura Carstensen, The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain

Sister Bernadette and the Brain’s Cognitive Reserve

So there is the memory thing… what’s that called? Oh, yes ! Thank heaven I wrote it down. Cognitive reserve. Episodic memory. We can remember that we have a cousin named John, or that we like tomatoes but not peas. We can remember the words to a song we learned at 11, just not one that plays every damn day on the radio now. We can’t remember what we were just doing or what your name is, even though we know you’re the handyman. It’s called episodic memory. That’s what goes.

It might be a problem more with retrieval than storage. The data is in the brain, but we’ve lost the path to finding it. Scientist Deborah Burke at Pomona College thinks it’s because the sound of names and their concepts get stored in different areas, weakening the links. This is why lists and tricks help. Say you come up with a strategy, like remembering John White at the bakery by thinking of white flour. It works both because the name connects to an image or sound and because applying imagination works a different part of the brain.

Then there was Sister Bernadette, part of the University of Kentucky Nun Study. The convent participants engaged in fewer activities like smoking and drinking that can skew results and agreed to regular cognitive tests and to donate their brains for study after death, making them ideal candidates. Bernadette, in particular, fascinated the scientists because she had a master’s degree, taught school for years, and was sharp as a tack well into her mid eighties. When she died at 85 of a massive heart attack, her brain autopsy was a surprise.

She had advanced Alzheimer’s, rated the most severe on the scale. She had the tangles and plaques that typically reflect someone with severe disability. But she’d been able to hide or overcome it for years. She wasn’t the only one. Researchers have found other cases where people with strong intellectual capabilities were found with advanced disease that belied their ability to stay sharp into their later years. The secret seems to be an ability to develop a “cognitive reserve,” a way for the brain to tap into its other parts to use an emergency stash of brainpower.

One connection to building up the cognitive reserve isn’t such a surprise: Education. Education changes the brain. For example, in a study of adult men in a lead-smelting plant, where the chemical exposure was known to cause neural damage, those with the highest reading scores were shielded most from cognitive decline. The best news: it seems as if the education which builds brain reserve could come at any time, whether it’s reading as a child, going to college, or engaging in intellectual activities later in life. But education isn’t the only way to keep the brain healthy.

Staving off Alzheimer’s

Whether education builds up our cognitive reserve or whether we are smarter than our 25-year-old counterparts, our middle-aged brains know Alzheimer’s is out there. What can we do to mitigate or prevent it? Strauch looked at three paths to solutions: specific foods, brain training, and overall exercise.

Despite daily claims that gingko biloba staves off memory loss or that taking fish oil makes you super smart, there’s been no conclusive link between any kind of food or vitamin and brain improvement. Period. If you have a deficiency in a vitamin, like B12, adding it to your diet can improve memory. But not if you already get enough B12. Drug companies are searching for the magic pill; agricultural conglomerates are looking for the magic food. Studies have focused, for example, on resveratrol, the ingredient in red wine, or on foods with antioxidants or anti-inflammatory properties as possible keys to brain health. So far, results haven’t shown such links. Antioxidants, that stuff in berries and kale, may be good for your body for other reasons, but not brain health.

More positive results may be found with brain exercises. Researchers started with video games, having older brains train at things like Space Fortess. So far, it has mostly just made granny good at beating the pants off the young’uns at Space Fortress. Researchers are hoping it will improve focus and allow the brain to help handle distractions better, so that you don’t find bananas on top of the dryer.

Other researchers, like Michael Merzenich at UC San Francisco, have been developing other kinds of training games. Merzenich’s Brain Fitness game  focuses on auditory stimuli. Participants practice discerning similar-sounding words, like mat, pat, or cat, or trying to tell if sounds are rising or falling. In a random, double-blind study, those with training handled cognitive tests significantly better. Other researchers who repeated the positive results postulated that such training compels the brain to focus on sound, and just enough without causing stress or fatigue. Instead of crossword puzzles and sudoku, we might be soon listening to a lot more Dr. Seuss.

The most conclusive studies showed a link to…you guessed it… aerobic exercise. Multiple scientific efforts have found that regular exercise–running, walking, swimming–is linked with improved cognitive performance. Of course, exercise helps blood flow to the heart, but it spreads oxygen around to the brain, too. While it was once thought that the brain’s pathways were fixed at a certain age and only declined, scientists have now shown that brain cells can be regenerated with exercise.

Brain on a Treadmill
The Running Brain, from MastersonFitness.com

Yeah, kind of a bummer. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to drink a lot more red wine?

Strauch sums up the research with a lovely story from a writer friend, who acknowledges she can’t remember details as she once did.

I’m reading a six-hundred-page book … even a few years ago I would have been able to keep the whole book, all the dates, in my head easily as I read along. And that’s just not the case now; my head is like a sieve for facts…
But it’s also true that I almost never come across a life problem…when I don’t know what to do…I feel like I can handle almost any crisis.  And if that’s the middle-aged brain, giving up facts for solutions, well, to me that’s a good trade-off.
from The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain

3 Replies to “Middle-Aged Brains are Smarter Even Though We Tend to Put our Keys in the Refrigerator”

  1. So true! I’m not at the forgetting where I put things stage, but I sure can agree with more agile brain function in many departments. woot. Even though the youngsters don’t want to hear what “we” have to say. Grandkids do though! smirk smirk I like that!

    1. The young never want to hear it; even Socrates knew that. They’ll know it, when they’re older. Thanks for the comment.

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