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


A New Place for Better, Longer Lives

So what, then, shall we do with our indefatigable, our inestimable—our newly appreciated—middle-aged brains?

Perhaps it’s time for a middle-age revolution.

After all, we have numbers on our side. For all of our planet’s history, children have outnumbered grown-ups. A huge pile of the young has been the base of a population pyramid that tapered off toward the top, with progressively dwindling numbers of older people.

But that has already changed. More than 500 million people worldwide are sixty-five and older. By 2030, one in every eight people on earth will be middle-aged or older. For the first time in history—and possibly for the rest of human history—people over the age of sixty-five will outnumber those under the age of five.

Not surprisingly, there’s a fair amount of agitated hand wringing about all of this. And it’s not just about keeping Social Security funded. Already some believe that any planet filled with so many older humans is a planet in peril, brimming with brains that have already begun to slide.

But what if that peril can be averted. If we keep pushing down our blood pressure, sidestepping strokes, taking that brisk walk, many of us could remain in one fairly well-oiled piece. With emerging evidence that our middle-aged brains are already considerably better than similar middle-aged brains were twenty years ago, and as education levels and wealth continue to climb, there’s more than a fighting chance that this good-news trajectory will continue.

But before your endorphins surge with that good news, we have to pause here, too.

It’s also true that even if we get half of all that right, there are hidden traps.

Imagine a planet where most of us are in our sixties, seventies, or eighties—or even older. Our hearts are hearty, our bones are sturdy, our brains are blooming.

What exactly are we going to be doing?

There may be some, even in such robust condition, who will be content to swing in hamacas in Baja. But most of us will want a little something to do. As Laura Carstensen of Stanford University says, quite bluntly and doubtless correctly: People want to work.

And that’s not going so well. According to a 2007 survey by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, nearly half of baby boomers say they expected to work past sixty-five but only 13 percent of current retirees actually worked until that age in the group that was studied. Rather, 40 percent were forced to stop working earlier than they’d hoped. The average age when they stopped getting a paycheck: fifty-nine.

Age discrimination is alive and well. Researcher Joanna Lahey recently sent out four thousand résumés to firms in Boston and St. Petersburg, Florida, and found that a younger worker was more than 40 percent more likely to be called in for an interview than a worker fifty years or older.

We’ve extended our lives by dozens of years—and we’re finally finding tantalizing new ways to extend our brain spans as well. But we have not taken a nanosecond to think about what to do with all those better years and better brains.

We need a new plan. Maybe we could find some way to move the furniture of our lives around a little bit here and there. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that what worked well for a vastly simpler agrarian society of the nineteenth century might not be the best fit for the demographically shifting realities of the twenty-first.

We could set up a world that makes sense for current life spans, with more flexible time to raise kids and work during the beginning and the middle and less down time later on.

“It’s very frustrating to me because we added thirty years to life and we have put it all at the end,” Laura Carstensen told me when I ate lunch with her at Stanford. “Whenever you ask Americans what is their biggest problem, they say time. We love work, but we love our families, too. And we have constructed a life course in which we have to do all of it at once.

“There is no reason it has to be this way. We need to build sabbaticals in all occupations so we can go learn something new. And we need to think about ways to reduce the workweek to three or four days when we have families. At that point in life, we all need to have jobs that are more flexible. And we need to not be irrelevant at age sixty-five.”

All that sounds good to me. Is it just wishful thinking?

Not necessarily. As we live longer and have fewer children, we face—indeed, we already have in some places—a severe labor shortage despite the vagaries of economic cycles. If such trends continue, the world will change because it has to, driven by basic economics.

In a few places, this idea has already begun to sink in. Admittedly, the movement is minuscule, but it’s out there. Some worried countries have set up ways for older workers to stay in the workforce and help younger workers learn their skills. Finland, which, like many other European countries, now has both a low birthrate and a rapidly aging population, has raised the retirement age. Some companies there now have master programs, in which workers past sixty train younger workers.

Encouraged by studies that show that older employees, contrary to stereotypes, often cost less than younger ones because they take less sick time and are cheaper to train, some companies in this country are waking up, too. Awhile back, Home Depot and Borders started hiring retired workers on purpose, giving them perks such as flexible and part-time hours and, in some cases, the ability to split job locations, working in cold areas in the summer and warm areas in the winter.

Other companies have said that they may resort to filming older workers doing their jobs so that knowledge about how things actually work won’t just walk out the door. One energy company that runs nuclear power plants recently asked managers to identify the “degree of criticality of knowledge” of older employees so that they can transfer at least a smidgen of that criticality to younger brains before it’s too late.

We live in a strangely schizophrenic world in terms of age. 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—yet we’ve had a man running for U.S. president, arguably the toughest job around, at age seventy-two. We send clear messages to women, in particular, that they’re past their prime in dozens of ways by their late fifties, and yet we have had a grandmother, at age sixty-eight, running the U.S. House of Representatives.

What exactly is too old anyhow? When, in terms of our bodies and our brain cells, are we over the hill?

Stanford University economist John B. Shoven recently came up with an entirely new way of calculating when we reach the crest of that hill. Given the fact that we’re all in better shape and living longer, he argues that our true age should be determined not by years since birth but by years left to live. In this way, he has reconfigured the traditional arc of our lives to create a long period of youth followed by shorter periods of middle age and old age. That means that if you have less than a 1 percent risk of dying within a year you can consider yourself young, and you’re not old until you have a 4 percent chance of dying within a year.

Middle age, according to this marvelous system, would be defined by a mortality risk between 1 and 4, a span of time that, by Shoven’s analysis of 2000 U.S. Census data, now begins for men around age fifty-eight and for women at age sixty-three.

And under this interpretation, men don’t become officially old until age seventy-three and women don’t cross that line until they’re seventy-eight.

If you take his message to heart—and why not—it means that the coming avalanche of aging brains will not be a disaster. We’ll simply turn into a planet of astonishingly competent grown-up brains!

So while we have time and those still-functioning grown-up brains, we might want to prepare a bit, perhaps ignite a tiny insurrection.

The best way to start, to my mind, is to finally give our middle-aged brains the respect they deserve. Maybe it’s time to take that broader middle-aged view—to appreciate and put to fuller use—what we still have inside our heads.

We all talk about the benefits of experience, but we forget that all that experience isn’t built up in our knees but in our brains. Knees come and go—we can even have them replaced—but we hang on to our brains. And those brains—silent, hidden—have been quite busy building up the rich connections that let us know what we need to know about our world.

By middle age, our brains have trillions of carefully constructed links and pathways that make us smarter, calmer, wiser, happier. These are the connections that let us, in an instant, recognize the underlying patterns around us and make sound judgments—good choice, bad choice, friend or foe? By middle age, our brains navigate complex situations and complex fellow humans almost on autopilot. Our middle-aged brains simply know that the deal for the latest video-conferencing cell phone/life organizer is no deal at all, know that we don’t have to panic because our daughter’s latest oddball boyfriend won’t last long in the end, know that it really is better to keep our mouths shut if, in fact, we have nothing useful to say, and know when we must speak up to make a difference.

One woman, sixty-two, a writer, summed up all this recently. She told me that she can no longer remember details as well as she did even a few years ago.

“I’m reading a six-hundred-page book now on race relations and it’s really good and 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.”

Then she added: “But it’s also true that I almost never come across a life problem, domestic or professional, when I don’t know what to do, what to say. 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.”

As I completed research for this book, a real-life example of this middle-aged solution-oriented brain at work occurred that could not have been more dramatic. It was when the fifty-seven-year-old pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III ditched his US Airways jet in the Hudson River after a flock of geese flew into the plane’s engines, shutting them down shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York. This white-haired pilot, calling on all the established patterns and connections built up in his brain over the years (including, luckily, experience from working as a glider pilot), decided to avoid densely populated areas and set his plane down in the icy river, in a landing that was so controlled, the jetliner stayed intact and all 150 passengers survived.

In this instance, not only the pilot but the entire crew of the plane was middle-aged, or “senior,” as they were called, as were the tug-boat and ferryboat captains who decided to turn their boats around and speed to the rescue. Middle-aged pilot, middle-aged crew, middle-aged boat captains—they all did the right thing automatically. This was the kind of stark reminder that every now and then elicits widespread appreciation, albeit temporary, for the calm and competent older brain.

“The pilot,” said one news report, “handled the emergency landing with aplomb and avoided major injuries, evacuating the plane . . . calmly and in the middle of the river.” One reason everyone survived, an air safety investigator concluded, was that the crew were all older, a “testament to experience.”

Some see signs that we are edging toward a new appreciation for such experience—one way or another. Writer Gail Collins recently noted that the 2009 Best in Show winner of the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club dog show was a ten-year-old Sussex spaniel named Stump—the oldest dog to win the title in the show’s 133-year history—the actor du jour that same year was Mickey Rourke, who was fifty-six, and Mick Jagger was still touring—all signs, she concluded, that “old is in.”

“Is this a baby-boomer plot?” she asked, only half kidding. “My own personal theory is that we’re witnessing a defense mechanism triggered by the current economic unpleasantness. Since it appears that nobody is ever going to be able to afford to retire, we’re moving into an era in which having your car fixed or your tonsils removed by a seventy-five-year-old will need to seem normal. . . . So it’s better if we readjust our thinking and start regarding everybody as 20-years-younger than the calendar suggests. . . . Then you will feel much better when the 80-year-old postman delivers your mail and it includes a request for money from your 38-year-old offspring doing post-post-post doctoral work at Ohio State.”

Well, maybe we aren’t quite there yet, but perhaps it’s time for a deep breath and time to get our grown-up brains in gear.

There’s stuff to do.

That’s not to say, of course, that there won’t still be—moments. We have to be prepared to make a few adjustments as well. There will be days when we run smack into our middle-aged brains. I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture.

Which leads me to my favorite middle-aged brain story. Not long ago, an old friend—the owner of a well-accomplished, highly capable middle-aged brain—stopped on her way home to buy actual roses.

“They were beautiful,” she said as she told me the story.

“I came home and put them in a vase in the living room.”

A few hours later, busy in the bedroom of her tiny Manhattan apartment, she thought: What’s that smell?

She thought someone had sprayed perfume around somewhere.

Then, walking into her living room, she suddenly felt thoroughly, utterly ridiculous. There, sitting on the table, was the vase of roses—tall, beautiful roses.

“I didn’t even remember buying them,” she said.

Not a good story, you say? Well, hold on. Let that wise amygdala do its work and take the more expansive, positive, optimistic view.

After all, thanks to her middle-aged brain, my friend got to enjoy the first wonderful whiff of those tall wonderful roses not just once, but twice.