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

Part I. The Powers That Be

Chapter 2. The Best Brains of Our Lives

A Bit Slower, but So Much Better

Here’s a short quiz. Look at the following list:

January February March April January February March May January February March June January February March—

What would the next word be?

Got it? Now, how about this one:

January February Wednesday March April Wednesday May June Wednesday July August Wednesday—

What would the next word be?

Now try it with numbers. Look at this series:

1 4 3 2 5 4 3 6 5

What would the next number be?

Did you get them all?

These are examples of questions that measure basic logic and reasoning. The answers are, in order, July, September, and, for the number sequence the next number would be 4 (and then 76. The series goes like this: 1-43 2-54 3-65 4-76 and so on).

Such problems test our abilities to recognize patterns and are routinely used by scientists to see how our cognitive—or thinking—processes are holding up. And if you’re middle-aged and have figured out all of them, you can be proud—your brain is humming along just fine.

Indeed, despite long-held beliefs to the contrary, there’s mounting evidence that at middle age we may be smarter than we were in our twenties.

How can that be? How can we possibly be smarter and be putting the bananas in the laundry basket? Smarter and still unable, once we get to the hardware store, to remember why we went there in the first place? Smarter and, despite our best efforts to concentrate on one thing at a time, finding our brains bouncing about like billiard balls?

To begin to understand how that might be, there is no better person to start with than Sherry Willis. A psychologist at Pennsylvania State University, Willis and her husband, K. Warner Schaie, run one of the longest, largest, and most respected life-span studies, the Seattle Longitudinal Study, which was started in 1956 and has systematically tracked the mental prowess of six thousand people for more than forty years. The study’s participants, chosen at random from a large health-maintenance organization in Seattle, are all healthy adults, evenly divided between men and women with varying occupations and between the ages of twenty and ninety. Every seven years, the Penn State team retests participants to find out how they are doing.

What’s important about this study is that it’s longitudinal, which means it studies the same people over time. For many years, researchers had information from only cross-sectional human life-span studies, which track different people across time looking for patterns. Most longitudinal studies, considered the gold standard for any scientific analysis, were not begun until the 1950s and are only now yielding solid information. And they show that we’ve been wildly misguided about our brains.

For instance, the first big results from the Seattle study, released just a few years ago, found that study participants functioned better on cognitive tests in middle age, on average, than they did at any other time they were tested.

The abilities that Willis and her colleagues measure include vocabulary—how many words you can recognize and find synonyms for; verbal memory—how many words you can remember; number ability—how quickly you can do multiplication, division, subtraction, and addition; spatial orientation—how well you can tell what an object would look like rotated 180 degrees; perceptual speed—how fast you can push a button when you see a green arrow; and inductive reasoning—how well you can solve logical problems similar to those mentioned above. While not perfect, the tests are a fair indicator of how well we do in certain everyday tasks, from deciphering an insurance form to planning a wedding.

And what the researchers found is astounding. During the span of time that constitutes the modern middle age—roughly age forty through the sixties—the people in the study did better on tests of the most important and complex cognitive skills than the same group of people had when they were in their twenties. In four out of six of the categories tested—vocabulary, verbal memory, spatial orientation, and, perhaps most heartening of all, inductive reasoning—people performed best, on average, between the ages of forty to sixty-five.

“The highest level of functioning in four of the six mental abilities considered occurs in midlife,” Willis reports in her book Life in the Middle, “for both men and women, peak performance . . . is reached in middle age.

“Contrary to stereotypical views of intelligence and the naïve theories of many educated laypersons, young adulthood is not the developmental period of peak cognitive functioning for many of the higher order cognitive abilities. For four of the six abilities studied, middle-aged individuals are functioning at a higher level than they did at age 25.”

When I first learned of this, I was surprised. After researching the science on the adolescent brain, I knew that our brains continue to change and improve up to age twenty-five. Many scientists left it at that, believing that while our brains underwent large-scale renovations through our teens, that was about it. I, too, thought that as the brain entered middle age, it was solidified and staid, at best—and, more likely, if it was changing in any big way, was headed downhill.

After speaking with Willis one afternoon, I went out to dinner with friends and couldn’t resist talking about what was still whirring in my head. “Did you know,” I asked the middle-aged group over pasta and wine, “that our brains are better—better—than they were in our twenties?”

The reaction was swift.

“You’re crazy,” said one of my dinner companions, Bill, fifty-two, a civil engineer who owns his own consulting firm. “That’s simply not true. My brain is simply not as good as it was in my twenties, not even close. It’s not as fast; it’s harder to solve really hard problems. Come on, if I tried to go to Stanford engineering school today, I would be toast. TOAST!

Bill is not wrong. Our brains do slow down by certain measures. We can be more easily distracted and, at times, find it more taxing to tackle difficult new problems, not to mention our inability to remember why we went down to the basement.

Bill does not have to go to school anymore, but even in his day-to-day work he compares his current brain to his younger brain and sees only its shortcomings. However, Bill is not seeing that his brain is far more talented than he gives it credit for. If you look at the data from the Willis research, the scores for those four crucial areas—logic, vocabulary, verbal memory, and spatial skills—are on a higher plane in middle age than the scores for the same skills ever were when those in her study were in their twenties. (There are also some interesting gender gaps. Top performance was reached a bit earlier on average for men, who peaked in their late fifties. Men also tended to hold on to processing speed a bit longer and do better overall with spatial tests. Women, on the other hand, consistently did better than men on verbal memory and vocabulary and their scores kept climbing later into their sixties.)

Equating Age with Loss

So why don’t we all know that? Why is Bill, along with so many of us in middle age, swallowed by the sense that, brain-wise, we are simply less than we were? In part, it’s the steady drumbeat of our culture, determined to portray aging as simply one loss after another. In part, it’s because for years people in aging science studied only those in nursing homes, hardly the center of high-powered inductive reasoning. Researchers simply skipped the middle.

But our own brains are not helping, either. Brains are set up to detect differences, spot the anomaly, find the snag in the carpet, the snake in the grass. So we notice changes in our own brains, too. But the differences we register in all likelihood refer to our brains of a few years ago, not the brains we had twenty-five years earlier. And when we notice slight shifts, which is certainly possible, we’re convinced that our brains have been in a downward trajectory since graduate school.

In other words, we pick up on the tiny defects in the carpet but fail to notice the more subtle, gradual process that over the years has painstakingly built our brains into a high-functioning, formidable force—a renovated room.

In the Seattle study, those between the ages of fifty-three and sixty, although still at a higher level than when they were in their twenties, nevertheless had “some modest declines” compared with a previous seven-year period. This difference in certain mental abilities from the earlier years, however slight, is what we notice. But it’s an illusion.

“The middle-aged individual’s perception of his or her intellectual functioning may be more pessimistic than the longitudinal data would suggest,” says Willis. “Comparisons . . . may be more likely to be made over shorter intervals. One may have a more vivid or accurate perception of oneself seven years ago than twenty years ago.”

In short, Bill was most likely thinking of his brain being slightly worse in some small ways at fifty-two than it was at forty-five—not twenty-five—when he assessed how poorly he thought he was doing now. The result is that, like most of us, he is keenly aware of flaws and completely unaware of the overall high level of ability of his own middle-aged brain.

“Your friend Bill does not realize how well he is doing because he is a fish in water” and can’t see how nice the water is, says Neil Charness, a psychologist at Florida State University and an expert in this area of research.

“Smarter and Smarter” by Generation

Of course, Bill is not the only fish in that particular body of water.

“For a long time we all thought that the peak was in young adulthood,” Willis told me. “We thought that the physical and the cognitive went in parallel and, partly for that reason, we funnel our educational resources into young adulthood thinking that is when we can most profit from it. But remember all this is new. We have never had this long middle age when we are doing so much. And we are finding out new things about this new period of life all the time.”

Indeed, some of the more recent research has started to break up aging into more distinct segments for examination. It is no longer just young versus old. Now we are looking even more closely at the middle years, even breaking those years into smaller segments to see how our current brains compare to those in previous decades.

A study by Elizabeth Zelinski at the University of Southern California, for instance, compared those who were seventy-four now with those who were that age sixteen years ago. She found that the current crop did far better on a whole range of mental tests. In fact, their scores were closer to those of someone fifteen years younger in earlier testing, findings that, as Zelinski points out, have “very interesting implications for the future, especially in terms of employment.”

There’s also a heartening downward trend now showing up in broad measures of cognitive impairment in individuals, the kind of mild forgetting that can plague brains as they age. A recent study by University of Michigan researchers found that the prevalence of this minor type of impairment in those seventy and older went down 3.5 percentage points between 1993 and 2002—that is, from 12.2 percent to 8.7 percent.

Nevertheless it’s easy to be concerned. Many of us have watched parents who, instead of dying quickly by falling off cliffs or tractors, spent years dealing with the debilitating effects of chronic ailments such as heart disease or Alzheimer’s.

“We have a lot of firsthand experience caring for our parents and we know we share genes with them and we watched what happened to them and we are very worried,” Willis says.

When I spoke with Willis, she was on sabbatical, trying to learn a new way of analyzing human life-span data with a dizzying array of complex equations. She readily admitted to some frustration with her own middle-aged brain.

“Look,” she told me, “I am fifty-nine and I have to make lists of the things I have to remember. I have to write down that I am going to talk to you and where I am going next, and now I’m trying to learn this new methodology and maybe it takes a little longer than it used to and it can be frustrating.”

But she adds quickly, “I am quite proud that I am beginning to understand it and, remember, when students learn these new things they are just studying and nothing else. They have a whole semester to devote to it. But here I am trying to learn it and at the same time I am very, very busy. I’m answering a gazillion e-mails and shopping and writing and talking to you.

“So really, I have to tell myself, give yourself a break. There is no question, the brain does get better at middle age.”

Extending her research, Willis is now digging even deeper into the folds of the middle-aged brain. Using new imaging technology, she is looking to see what kinds of structural changes occur in brain volume in middle age and if those changes affect cognitive abilities as people age. She’s also trying to find out what effect such chronic diseases as diabetes and cardiovascular problems in midlife have on a person’s ability to maintain high levels of brain function later on. All in all, she fully expects to find that the brains of her grown-up subjects do not stand still.

“If we are lucky,” she says, “our brains continue to develop and improve.”

So, if that’s so, how do we do both? How can a brain at age fifty-two be wandering around the living room trying to remember what it is looking for and galloping along on a higher plateau than it did in college? Can we break apart that inherent contradiction further? And if so, what do we call the good aspects of our brains? Is it knowledge? Is it expertise? Is it experience? Maybe it has more to do with intuition. Or how about simple survival instincts?

More important—aside from strict cognitive tests—is it possible to measure all this in the real world?

A few years ago, the answer would have been no. But that has changed, too. Researchers have now gone looking for this middle-aged stuff—this middle-aged je ne sais quoiand they’ve found it both in the real world, by following real people through their entire lives, and, increasingly, by using new scanning technology deep inside the complex structure of our brains.

One of those who have looked the hardest is Art Kramer, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Illinois. A couple of years ago, Kramer decided to see if he could find out how a middle-aged brain actually functioned in day-to-day life. In particular, he and his colleagues wanted to see how a middle-aged brain would do in a job that calls for rapid-fire decision making. So they decided to look at air-traffic controllers.

In this country, air-traffic controllers must retire at age fifty-five. Many other countries let controllers work much longer and don’t have more accidents than we do. Who is right? Are we somehow safer here because we insist that those in such jobs, on whose top-level brain function we rely for our safety, have a mandatory age cutoff, regardless of health or ability? Or, asked the opposite way, is it possible that by forcing retirement at age fifty-five, we’re losing out on the best brains—grown-up brains—that could keep us even safer?

To test this, Kramer went to Canada, where controllers can work until they’re sixty-five. There, they put a group of young and older controllers through a seven-hour battery of cognitive tests and then had them, for a long stretch of time, do work that simulated their daily jobs.

“In real life controllers work at computers, and in our simulation we used computers and we had them do all sorts of things, just as if they were working,” Kramer explained when I spoke with him. “Sometimes they were really busy and talking to pilots and watching a screen and having aircraft coming in at different speeds. We also had them sequencing flight patterns. There were a lot of things for them to deal with.”

And what did they find? Older controllers did just as well as their younger colleagues. “They clearly performed as well on simulated tasks as the younger group. There was no difference in level,” said Kramer.

On the cognitive tests, there were differences, but they, too, were instructive. In areas such as processing speed, younger controllers did better. But in two important cognitive areas—visual orientation (the capacity to look at a plane in two dimensions on a computer screen and imagine it in three dimensions in the sky) and dealing with ambiguity (coping well with conflicting information, computer crashes, or even the possibility that the computer might be wrong)—older controllers, again, did just as well.

Studies of pilots find the same thing. In research led by Joy L. Taylor of Stanford/VA Aging Clinical Research Center and published in the journal Neurology, 118 pilots aged forty to sixty-nine were tested over a three-year period in flight simulators that involved piloting a single-engine aircraft over flat terrain near mountains. Taylor found that older pilots did not do as well the first time they used the simulators, which tested skills in communicating with air-traffic controllers, avoiding traffic, keeping track of cockpit instruments, and landing. But as the tests were repeated, the older pilots were actually better than younger pilots in the underlying point of the whole exercise—avoiding traffic and collisions. In other words, the older pilots took longer to catch on to the new test at first, but they outperformed younger pilots when it came to doing what was most important—keeping the planes where they were supposed to be.

“The thing is, if you have many years of experience, that serves you well and is very, very useful,” Kramer says. “And if an older person maintains the skills he needs, perhaps he can perform in professions that we thought he could not in the past.”

Where Expertise Finds a Home

In an odd way, of course, we think we know this, too. We talk a lot about experience, often in glowing terms. We praise it in an architect or a lawyer; we look for it in presidential candidates.

But even as we give experience its due, strangely, we overlook its true nature and impact.

Granted, this is elusive. Can you plot on a graph how well a person manages a staff? Can you count the number of times a person sagely decides to hold her tongue or, through well-practiced tact, leads a bickering group to consensus? For that matter, how do you nail down the exact moment when a parent is being an expert parent, determining whether to hug or scold a difficult child? Can you find, with cognitive tests, the enthusiasm, judgment, and patience an experienced teacher brings to his class?

It’s easy to throw experience around as a catchall—and leave it at that. But that has led to an astounding lack of appreciation for the very place where such experience makes its home—in middle-aged brains. All those years of know-how and practice and right-on-the-money gut feelings aren’t, as one researcher put it, “building up in our knees.”

Over the past few years, there has been an attempt to address this neglect. A whole field has developed to pin down what scientists like to call “expertise.” This does not completely capture the whole nature of what we call experience, either. But it certainly takes some steps in that direction.

Neil Charness, for one, has spent his career looking at all this. Now fifty-nine, Charness first got interested in what makes aging brains retain their power at his first job when he studied bridge players.

Although the prevailing view had been that older bridge players were slower and had poorer memories and were, therefore, weaker players, Charness found, in a sample of real people playing real games, that simply wasn’t true. He found that if the task in the game required mostly speed, the older players performed at a lower level than younger ones. But in the most fundamental task in bridge—basic problem solving—older players “could easily play at high levels.”

Some argue that brain-processing speed is so fundamental to the brain that a decline that comes with age fouls up the works overall, making all functions worse, but Charness and many other neuroscientists are now convinced otherwise.

“So we were left with a kind of paradox,” Charness explained when I spoke with him. “We had tended to think that one skill—processing speed—underlies all skills, but this study helped raise my awareness that that was not true.”

Most recent research in this area has focused on bridge and chess because their outcomes are easy to measure. And Charness says research continues to show that while age takes its toll on the speed of older players, that specific decline in our brains, which begins in our twenties, does not affect overall performance.

“There’s no question that players slow down, but if what you are doing depends on knowledge, then you’re going to do very well as you get older,” Charness says. On average, it takes ten years to acquire a high level of skill in a whole range of areas, from golf to chess. “And it makes sense,” he says. “Which would you rather have on your team, a highly experienced fifty-five-year-old chess master or a twenty-five-year-old novice?”

There have been recent attempts to measure this talent in other real-life settings as well. And those studies, too, find that despite loss of speed and the fact that it can sometimes take older individuals longer to learn certain new skills, they navigate their work lives with increasing ease and dexterity.

One recent study found that older bank managers showed normal age-related decline on cognitive tests, but their degree of professional success depended almost entirely on other types of abilities, the kind that Charness refers to as the “acquired practical knowledge about the business culture and interpersonal relations that made a manager work more effectively.” Over the past few years scientists have developed new ways to measure success in the real world by looking at what they call practical, or tacit, knowledge. One way they do that is to give managers actual scenarios followed by different solutions that have been shown to work or not work in professional settings. Once study participants choose their solutions their scores are rated. And in this case, as in many other similar studies, older workers, calling on their richly connected, calm, pattern-recognizing middle-aged brains, consistently won expert ratings.

And in some ways, our brains are increasingly being given a cultural boost as well. It is not just biology that’s helping. For many years, many people thought that midlife brought only depression or declines in energy or zeal. But now we know that such difficulties can—and do—occur at all ages, not just in the middle years. As the average life span has lengthened, we now have plenty of people growing older in fine cognitive and physical shape whom we can not only look to as role models but also study to figure out what actually takes place to make that happen. While some parts of all this—including, in some cases, our own perceptions of ourselves, as well as the official world of employment—have lagged behind, overall attitudes show signs of a shift. There are more people who are simply not giving in or giving up. And science, increasingly, backs them up.

There is now, for instance, a growing field of study that seeks to figure out how, precisely, to maintain peak performance as we age. It used to be assumed that high levels of achievement at any time of life was mostly a result of luck and genes, with effort only a small part of it all. But it turns out that continued success has much less to do with inborn genius and more to do with what Charness and his colleagues now call “deliberate practice,” a commitment to working at a skill over and over and meticulously zeroing in on faults—the kind of strategic practice that can work at any age.

And science is also now showing how as we age we develop compensatory tricks when necessary. Many of the best baseball pitchers start their careers as fastballers, relying on lightning speed to work their magic. But as time passes, and the edge comes off those ninety-eight-mile-per-hour throws, they adapt and fully develop other pitches—curves, sliders, breaking balls—to remain competitive. The fastball is still there, it’s just not as fast—and the most talented use their wiles to remain the best. It is much the same with the middle-aged brain.

Even the pianist Arthur Rubinstein adopted new tricks as he aged. He sometimes made up for an age-related decline in movement speed by slowing down before a difficult passage to, as Charness says, “create a more impressive contrast.”

And the good news is that such masterful skills, for the most part, accumulate naturally, especially in our multilayered modern world. The simple act of survival—in the course of living and making a living in our challenging environment—may make our heads ache, but it also strengthens what’s inside our heads.

As Sherry Willis says: “I think the scores are so much higher in midlife than in young adulthood because we have had so much more life experience, especially on the job. Even computers are helping us to be more logical linear thinkers. The job environment is an intense learning environment, much more intense than when we were in school.

“And it’s odd to think that the brain would not continue to develop,” she adds. “Most professional jobs are very stimulating and complex and, even in leisure time, we have more opportunities to take up complicated things like photography. All that complexity can bring on what we call stress, of course, but I think that if we can handle that emotionally, it might all be very good for us—and good for our brains.”

If Considered—Appreciated

And while outright appreciation is rare, many of those in middle age, when pressed, do offer a surprisingly glowing testament to their own brains.

Brad Burtner, an air-traffic controller, told me that as far as he’s concerned, there’s “no question” that he’s a better air-traffic controller now than he was when he was younger. “Definitely, definitely, I would say I am much, much better at the job now,” he said.

After nearly thirty years as an air-traffic controller, most of them spent working at the large international airport outside Cincinnati, Burtner was forced to retire in 2008 after he reached age fifty-five. A marathon runner who jogs twelve miles a day, Burtner considers the idea of retiring in middle age so silly he plans on continuing his work at a nearby small private airport that does not have age cutoffs.

This is not to say that he, like most of us, doesn’t notice some missteps. When I spoke with Burtner, he had no trouble ticking off his brain’s deficits. “I clearly have more problems with my memory now,” he said. “When I was younger I could keep all the different altitudes of all the planes in my head, thirty planes at a time. And now I can’t do that. I have to write them down.

“But, you know,” he added, “that’s the way we are supposed to do it anyhow and it’s probably safer. If I had a stroke someone could come up and see where every plane was because I am so careful about writing it down now.”

Burtner sometimes finds it harder to concentrate. “I think I am more easily distracted than I used to be,” he said. “But I know that and I make changes. If someone has the radio on, I will say, hey, could you turn that down?”

And even with those concerns, Burtner insists he is a far safer controller in his fifties than he was in his twenties or even his early thirties.

As Neil Charness says: “The simple fact that older workers do just as well as younger ones in overall performance, despite fairly predictable declines in speed, is a testament to how important these other abilities are.”

Like my friend the poet, Burtner finds he can do his work better largely because it is only now that “all the pieces come together.”

“Now I anticipate situations before they happen. And I always have a backup plan. If there’s a thunderstorm, I know what I’m going to do if the first plan doesn’t work,” he told me.

“The big point,” he said, “is that now I control the situation instead of letting the situation control me. Now I think about the whole situation, how things fit.”