The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind - Barbara Strauch (2010)


The Changing Landscape of Middle Age

For most of human history, middle age has been largely ignored. Birth, youth, old age, death have all been given their due. But middle age has not only been neglected, it’s not even been considered a distinct entity.

For most of human history, of course, such neglect made perfect sense. Lives were brutal and brief; there wasn’t time for a middle. By the time of the Greeks, there was a reverence for maturity; Greek citizens could not become jury members until age fifty, for instance. But a Greek middle age was not even close to our current version. Not that many Greeks made it that far, for one thing—the average life expectancy in ancient Greece was thirty years old. For those lucky souls who lived longer, it was more like reaching a high peak, taking a sniff of the bracing mountain air, and then quickly descending into the valley of old age.

Now, of course, all that has changed. With human life spans stretching out—the average life span in the developed world just a century ago was about forty-seven years and is now about seventy-eight—we have a long expanse of time in the middle when we’re no longer chasing toddlers and not yet rolling down corridors in wheelchairs. With that shift, middle age has come into its own. Books have been written, movies made, studies launched.

But even with this newfound attention, one aspect of middle age has remained neglected—our brains. Even as science began to pay attention to what was happening to our bodies and our lives in the middle years, it did not think about what was taking place inside our heads. The prevailing view was that a brain during midlife was, if anything, simply a young brain slowly closing down.

Now that’s changed, too. With new tools such as brain scanners, genetic analysis, and more sophisticated long-term studies, the middle-aged brain is finally getting its due. Much of the new attention, to be honest, is driven by fear. Many of us—and many scientists themselves—have watched parents suffer the devastations of dementia. We’re frightened.

A few years ago, after I wrote a book on the teenage brain, I would sometimes give talks for juvenile justice or school groups. After a speech, I was usually driven to the airport by the person who had arranged the event. More often than not, that person, like me, was middle-aged, and as we drove along, he or she would say something along the lines of: “You know, you should write a book about my brain; my brain suddenly is horrible, I can’t remember a thing. I forget where I’m going or why. And the names, the names are awful. It’s scary.”

I would smile and nod in agreement, thinking of my own middle-aged brain. Where do all those names go? Do they float out of our heads and into the trees? Are they up there bouncing around the interstellar clouds, gleefully watching us fumble about? And is this the start of something truly awful?

Not long ago, the writer Nora Ephron, who at sixty-seven was at the outer edge of what’s considered the modern middle age, wrote an essay about all this called “Who Are You?”

“I know you,” she wrote. “I know you well. It’s true. I always have a little trouble with your name, but I do know your name. I just don’t know it at this moment. We’re at a big party. We’ve kissed hello. . . . You’ve been to my house for dinner. I tried to read your last book. . . . I am becoming desperate. It’s something like Larry. Is it Larry? No it’s not. Jerry? No it’s not . . . I’m losing my mind. . . .”

Originally, I shared such concerns. My aim was to find out where the names go, the Larrys, the Jerrys, the “who are you’s.” From a neuroscience point of view, I wanted to know if those names were hidden somewhere, a brain equivalent to the secret hole in the universe where all the library cards, favorite pens, and glasses disappear. I wanted to find out what was going wrong in middle age, and what it meant.

After all, it’s more than just memory and names. Our brains at midlife have other issues as well. Sometimes when I’m driving now, I look up and realize that I’ve not been paying the slightest attention to the road but instead have been thinking of something else entirely, like how I’m going to brine the turkey for Thanksgiving. The smallest interruption can be distracting, my brain flitting away from what it was doing and off into another land. Just the other day, while packing for a trip, I spent five frustrating minutes looking for my toothbrush to put in my suitcase only to find that I had, just minutes before, already put my toothbrush in my suitcase. After I’d packed it, I’d gotten distracted looking for a sweater and, whoosh, all thoughts of toothbrush-already-in-suitcase were swept out of my head.

It would be nice to say that this kind of thing happens rarely. In fact, it happens all the time. And while other ages have their troubles, too—one would hardly call your average teenager a model of mind-fulness, for instance—the changes in my brain now seem to have a qualitative difference. In areas of memory and focus, in particular, a tipping point has been reached—a point at which I now find myself in a kind of automatic way relying on my twenty-something daughters not only to remind me of things I fear I’ll forget but also to bring my mind back to where it started. What was I talking about? At middle age, we know we’re different. We know our brains are different. What has happened? Where have our minds gone? From a neuroscience perspective, are we all—bit by bit—losing our minds?

In the end, I spent considerable time tracking down the lost names, and I will tell you where they go and—according to current thought anyhow—what it all means. I also dug into the latest science on our tendency to lose our train of thought as well. Over the past few years, scientists have begun to examine this mindlessness, finding where, in fact, our middle-aged brains go when they wander off track.

Along the way, though, this book took an about-face. It’s not that I forgot what I was writing about. But when I looked deeper into the latest science of the modern middle-aged brain, I found not bad news but good.

As it turns out, the brain in middle age has another story to tell that’s quite the opposite of the one I’d expected. This is the middle-aged brain that we’ve all, in a sense, mislaid. As we bumble through our lives, it’s easier to notice the bad things.

But as science has begun to home in on what exactly is happening, a new image of the middle-aged brain has emerged. And that is this: Our middle-aged brains are surprisingly competent and surprisingly talented. We’re smarter, calmer, happier, and, as one scientist, herself in middle age, put it: “We just know stuff.” And it’s not just a matter of us piling facts into our brains as we go along. Our brains, as they reach midlife, actually begin to reorganize—and start to act and think differently.

In the end, the brain I had not expected to find was the brain I wanted to write about: this middle-aged brain, which just as it’s forgetting what it had for breakfast can still go to work and run a multinational bank or school or city, a whole country even, then return home to deal with cars that talk, teenagers who don’t, sub-prime mortgage meltdowns, neighbors, parents.

This is a brain—a grown-up brain—that we all take for granted. In a way, it’s quite understandable. As we live longer, middle age is a moving target. A lot is not yet clear. Recently, columnist William Safire was taken to task by a reader for calling the actor Harrison Ford middle-aged at 64. “If he were literally middle-aged, then he could expect to live to 128,” the reader pointed out. “By describing themselves as middle-aged, are not those in their 60s and even 70s guilty of some rather over-optimistic math?”

Most researchers locate modern middle age somewhere between the ages of forty and sixty-eight. But even that’s a bit squishy. As life spans continue to stretch, what’s the end and what’s the middle?

As I write this, I am, at age fifty-six, decidedly middle-aged. No one, not even me at my most optimistic, would describe me as young. And no one, with the possible exception of my children, would call me old.

So middle-aged it is. But what, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, does that actually mean? And what does it mean for my brain?

This book is an attempt to answer that question.

Over the past few years, in fact, researchers have found out a great deal about the middle-aged brain. They have found that—despite some bad habits—it is at its peak in those years and stays there longer than any of us ever dared to hope. As it helps us navigate through our lives, the middle-aged brain cuts through the muddle to find solutions, knows whom and what to ignore, when to zig and when to zag. It stays cool; it adjusts. There are changes taking place that allow us to see a fuller picture of the world, even be wildly creative. In fact, the most recent science shows that serious deficits in important brain functions—ones we care most about—do not occur until our late seventies and, in many cases, far beyond.

What’s more, middle age is a far more important time for our brains than anyone ever suspected. This is when paths diverge. What we do when we’re on Planet Middle Age determines what the next stop, Planet Old Age, will look like. As one neuroscientist told me, at midlife, the brain is “on the cusp.” What we do matters, and even what we think matters.

Over the years, we’ve been trained to think that the body and the brain age in tandem. Certain bodily changes are undeniable. Despite my best efforts—the regular runs, the laps at the YMCA pool, the yoga—I’m twenty pounds heavier than I ever was before. I need glasses that correct for three different distances—reading, driving, and writing on a computer. My hair, without help, is an undistinguished brownish gray, my face has deep lines. Sometimes, catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror or a window, I think, for a quick moment, that I’m really looking at my mother.

And as we watch the hair on our heads turn gray or disappear altogether, we assume that there’s equivalent decay inside our heads. It’s not hard to imagine our neurons turning their own shades of brownish gray, drying up, or disappearing altogether, too.

But what’s actually happening turns out to be much more complicated. And researchers—from sociologists and psychologists to neuroscientists—have discovered that middle-aged brains do not necessarily act like the rest of our bodies at all.

So what do we know?

What is known of middle age now comes to us from the results of major studies just now emerging of how people actually live their lives, as well as from research from labs all over the world that are now dissecting the experience of middle age, brain cell by brain cell.

Our brains vary greatly in terms of which functions decline and which maintain their capacities, or even reach their height, in middle age and beyond. Parts of our memory—certainly the part that remembers names—wane. But at the same time, our ability to make accurate judgments about people, about jobs, about finances—about the world around us—grows stronger. Our brains build up patterns of connections, interwoven layers of knowledge that allow us to instantly recognize similarities of situations and see solutions.

And because of our generally healthy childhoods—compared with earlier generations—most cognitive declines of consequence are not occurring for those in middle age now until much later than even our parents’ generation. There’s also evidence that as a group we’re considerably smarter than any similarly aged groups that went before us.

Much of what I’ve written here is quite new. Even as I wrote the book, various interpretations of some findings were still being hotly debated.

As it’s come into focus and scrutiny, middle age has attracted its own rumors, fantasies, and ghosts. With the current deeper understanding of what actually happens, however, many of those ghosts are disappearing. The midlife crisis, for instance, that currency of cocktail-party conversation, turns out on closer inspection to have little grounding in reality. The empty-nest syndrome, another staple of our expectations of middle age, is equally rare, if not imaginary.

In fact, scientists have found that moving into middle age for most is a journey into a happier time. In particularly hard or stressful moments it might not seem likely, but around middle age, we start growing happier, and the cause may be aging itself. The positive wins out over the negative in how we see the world, in part because we start to use our brains differently. There may be evolutionary reasons for this, too. A happier, calmer middle-aged human is better able to help the younger humans in his care.

Clearly, the middle-aged brain is no longer pristine. Researchers meticulously tracking the brain as it ages in humans and animals see distinct declines in the chemicals that make our brains function—the neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, that keep us alert and on the move. There’s a decrease in brain branches, where neurons communicate. There’s new—very new—work that has found a whole new brain state—a default mode. This is a kind of daydreaming state of quiet and continuous inner chatter where our brains increasingly go as we age, leaving us distracted, and confirmation of its existence is considered one of the most important discoveries ever made about how brains operate and age.

What’s more, one scientist at Pomona College in California has now carefully documented what, in fact, happens when we forget names, why it starts in middle age, what it might mean, and why, for heaven’s sake, we can remember that a person works as a banker but cannot remember that his name is Bob. There is now general agreement that some brain functions simply do not keep up, particularly what scientists like to call processing speed. If you think, at age fifty-five, that you’ll be able to keep pace in all areas with an average twenty-five-year-old—to swerve as quickly to avoid a squirrel in the road or adjust as quickly to yet another new computer system at work—think again.

But in the end, a name here or there or a top rate of brain speed may not matter so much. While losses occur by middle age in our brains, they are neither as uniform nor as drastic as we feared. Indeed, even the long-held view that our brains lose millions of brain cells through the years has now been discounted. Using brain scanners and watching the brains of real people aging in real time, researchers have now shown that brain cells do not disappear in large numbers with the normal aging process. Most stick around for the long haul and, given half a chance, can be there—intact and ready—well into our eighties and nineties and perhaps beyond.

Neuroscientists at UCLA and elsewhere can now watch parts of brain cells—in particular, the fatty white coating of neurons called myelin—continue to grow late into middle age. As myelin increases, it builds connections that help us make sense of our surroundings. This growth of white matter, as one Harvard scientist has put it, may in itself be “middle-aged wisdom.” There’s new interest, too, in defining what exactly wisdom is. We talk glibly of someone being wise, but what does that mean? How is such a thing stored in a brain and made use of in the day-to-day life of a fifty-year-old mother of teenagers or a sixty-year-old professor? For many years, what we call experience was also taken for granted. But experience is now being broken into its component parts and we’re learning exactly how experience physically changes the brain, which kinds of experience alter the brain for the better, and what it really means to be a competent manager, a prudent pilot, or a gifted teacher.

There are recent findings, too, that show how the middle-aged brain—rather than giving up and giving in—adapts. As we age, our brains power up, not down, and use more of themselves to solve problems. And it is those with the highest functioning cognitive skills who learn to use their brains this way. In some cases, as researchers at Duke University and elsewhere have found, people in middle age begin to use two sides of their brains instead of one—a trick called bilateralization. Those who recruit—or learn to recruit—the strength of their brains’ powerful frontal cortex, in particular, develop what scientists call “cognitive reserve,” thought to be a buffer against the effects of aging. This is the kind of brain strength that helps us get the point of an argument faster than younger peers—to get the gist, size up a situation, and act judiciously rather than rashly. This brain reserve may also help us ward off early outward symptoms of diseases such as Alzheimer’s. And there are strong hints that something as simple as education—or working—may be the key to building this brain buffer for a lifetime.

The question this leaves us with, of course, is, how can we both develop that buffer and keep it. If we’re lucky enough to remain relatively healthy, can we push our brains to remain strong beyond middle age? To get that answer, science first has to tease out exactly what constitutes normal aging and what is pathology and illness. Since for years most aging research was conducted largely in nursing homes, we’ve had an overly negative view of what it means to get old. For many years, even most doctors thought dementia was inevitable.

But now we know that dementia, while its risks certainly increase with age, is a specific disease. If we maintain a normal path of aging without major illnesses, our brains can stay in relatively good shape.

So what do we need to do?

In the last part of the book, I explore the science of brain improvement, an area steeped in hype. What do we really know about the magic of eating blueberries or omega-3’s anyhow? Does exercise make a difference, and, if so, what kind and how?

At Boston University Medical School, neuroscientist Mark Moss is studying middle-aged monkeys to find out how normal aging happens and what can keep middle-aged brains intact. Is it fish oil? Red wine? Hours on the elliptical trainer? Elsewhere scientists are testing starvation diets to see why low-calorie diets seem to prolong lives, or why poor diets, high in fat and sugar, are harmful. One top researcher at the National Institutes of Health, for instance, has been severely limiting his own caloric intake since he was in graduate school, to see if he can maintain his brain’s vitality, ward off disease, extend his own life—and figure out how to prolong ours, too. Newer studies are asking what it is about obesity or high blood pressure that might increase the risks of dementia. Far beyond simply suggesting that a glass of wine or a bunch of blueberries is beneficial, researchers are now looking closely at the chemical makeup of certain foods. Is it the dark color of the fruit’s skin that helps our cells stay healthy? Is it the antioxidants? How many glasses of wine do we have to drink anyhow? Can we find a pill that will work instead?

One way to measure how excited a particular group of scientists is about the potential of their field is to follow the money. And there is now real money behind various ideas about how to extend the useful life of our brain cells. Now that science knows that we do not lose millions of neurons as we age, it seems suddenly plausible that we can, if we look hard enough, find easier ways to keep our brain cells in top form. There’s increasing talk of “druggable” targets to help the brain as it ages, and a number of top scientists have begun their own companies in the hopes that once that target is found, there will be money to be made. Indeed, one top researcher I know said the biggest change she’s seen over the past few years has been that legitimate scientists are now talking unabashedly about possible brain “interventions,” including drugs that may be within reach.

For many researchers working on the aging brain, this new culture of possibility is a surprise. But then, as we watch ourselves age, many of us, too, are finding that we have to reconsider how we think about our own brains—and our own lives—as we enter and traverse middle age.

In an essay in 2007, author Ann Patchett expressed her own surprise at the evolving talents she has found in her brain as she reaches middle age. Even as her skin droops, Patchett has discovered that her mind is maturing.

“I was searching through files of photographs recently . . . when I found the proof sheets from a photo shoot I had sat for in 1996,” she wrote. “I was 32 years old, and I looked good. I mean really good: clear-eyed, sharp-jawed, generally lanky and self-possessed. . . .

“Looking at them now . . . I was struck by the fact that even though I am devoted to yoga and eat and get loads of rest and take vitamins and do all the other things you’re supposed to do to maintain the lustrous beauty of youth, I looked much better 11 years ago.”

But “I was also struck by the fact that I am smarter now. . . . My mind . . . is like a bank account and every investment I make seems to grow with a steady rate of interest. I am hoping that it will be there to keep me company as I age and that it will remain curious and agile. I’m working hard on it. And I do so love the work.”

As I wrote this book, I, too, began to view my own brain with a new respect.

When you actually take a moment to watch what a middle-aged brain does—and does with ease—it can come as a surprise. But it is also comforting. Over and over, when I told others I was writing a book about the brain in middle age, I would be met with suspicious glances. Then, after a moment, those same people, all middle-aged, would say things like, “Well, you know I am a better teacher now,” or, “Oh, well, yes, I am a better parent now.” Certainly, during middle age, we have a lot going on, a lot on our minds. But many of those in middle age told me that, rather than just feeling overwhelmed, they are, on some level, quite proud of what they can accomplish. One sixty-year-old friend put it another way: “My brain feels like one of those blueberries they keep telling us to eat,” she said. “You know, finally ripe and ready and whole.”

And that leaves the final—and perhaps most important—question. And that is, if our brain does in fact retain its strength— and we find methods of maintaining that strength—what shall we do with it?

The trappings and timetables of our lives are woefully out of date—set up for long-ago life spans in which by middle age we were expected to curl up—and give up. But if—as current trends indicate—many of us manage to live well into our eighties and nineties, and if we manage to keep our brains intact during that time, what will we be doing?

The world is set up to treat a middle-aged brain not as ripe, ready, and whole, but as diminished, declining, and depressed. We set up mandatory retirement ages that have little bearing on current lives. We tell teachers, lawyers, writers, and bankers they’re too old to work and we send them home—to do what?