The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind
by Barbara Strauch. Viking, 2010
Brains, like certain French cheeses, get better with age. That’s the message of The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, which takes a detailed look at an avalanche of new research showing that human brains hit their prime when their owners are between their early 40s and late 60s—much later than previously thought.
In accessible and entertaining prose, journalist Barbara Strauch explains how and why our brain’s performance—as opposed to that of the rest of our body—actually improves as we move through middle age. Sure, we may get a little more forgetful, say when it comes to remembering names or where we left our keys, but the middle-aged brain is unsurpassed in handling the important stuff, Strauch says. A recent study of 118 pilots aged 40 to 69 showed, for example, that the older participants outperformed their younger colleagues when avoiding traffic collisions using simulators. One reason Strauch gives is that we begin to use a larger portion of our brain as we age.
For example, studies in which volunteers learned pairs of words revealed that younger adults used only their right frontal lobes when recalling the twosome while older adults used both the left and right side. This is “much like using two arms instead of one to pick up a heavy chair,” Strauch says. The study’s results fly in the face of the long-held view that as time goes on people use a smaller portion of their brain. But that’s not all. Researchers have also found that the amount of myelin, the fatty substance that insulates nerve fibers, continues to increase well into middle age, boosting brain cells’ processing capacity.
Strauch’s book paints a radically new picture of the brain that goes far beyond making those entering middle age feel better. Instead the newly gained insights into the adult brain should cause us to rethink how we structure our lives, Strauch says. Right now we “tell people to get out of the way at sixty-two—too old to teach, too old to be a doctor, too old to be a lawyer,” even though that’s when the brain’s performance reaches its peak. So, rather than treating the middle-aged brain as “diminished, declining, and depressed,” we should embrace it for what it actually is: “ripe, ready, and whole.”