We expect our mental faculties to dwindle as we grow older, but a new book suggests it is not inevitable, writes Sylvia Thompson in her book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.
The popular view of growing old is filled with pessimistic accounts of minds which become less alert and more forgetful, and bodies succumbing to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and various forms of cancer.
American science writer Barbara Strauch has just written a book which challenges a lot of what we believe about growing old – particularly in relation to our minds.
In The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain , she takes a more optimistic view of the mature brain, suggesting that although forgetfulness and lack of focus may be hallmarks, so too are increased competence to deal with work crises and complex human relationships which span many generations.
She draws on studies of brain biology that show the brain structure continues to change throughout life – a fact that was much disputed by scientists until recently. “For most of its 100-year history, neuroscience has embraced a central dogma: a mature adult’s brain remains a stable, unchanging, computer-like machine with fixed memory and processing power. You can lose brain cells . . . but you certainly can’t gain new ones,” wrote Fred Gage in a Scientific American article which first suggested that this theory was in fact, wrong.
“The brain is an organ. It is tissue that is changing all the time and it is regulated by our environment. It is affected by what we do,” Gage told Strauch in an interview quoted in the book.
Strauch writes about how what we do affects our brains and how brain-training exercises actually help to tone up the neural circuits. In fact, some researchers now suggest that helping the brain stay flexible through new learning tasks, complex leisure activities or perhaps even certain video games can buffer it against “the assaults of normal ageing and dementia”.
One study defined cognitive-stimulating activities as those in which seeking or processing information is central. That meant playing bridge was out, but reading magazines or newspapers, going to the library, doing word games, taking music lessons or learning a foreign language were all counted in.
In her book, Strauch also gives some attention to dementia – the brain disease that has become one of Western society’s biggest fears. Several studies point to education and complex occupations as protective factors and, amazingly, some of them found that older people who remain highly engaged on an intellectual level don’t show the outward signs of dementia even though their brain scans suggests they have the disease.
Researcher Yaakov Stern, a neuroscientist at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, says: “This suggests that those who can call on more brain power can hold back the outward signs of the disease. Then, by the time the disease becomes outwardly evident, its effects are much further along in the brain and those patients both get worse and die faster.”
Overall, Strauch – who is in her mid-50s – remains hugely upbeat about the mature brain. She regularly refers to the competences of middle-aged people who are capable of wise decision-making based on years of experience.
And although this makes for happy reading, it does leave one wondering exactly how much of her discourse is based on observing middle-aged friends – writers, doctors, scientists – with successful careers.
She writes: “‘I hate it when people say they are having a senior moment’, said one woman I know in her early 60s. ‘People lose their keys when they are my age and they think it’s their aging brain. But plenty of teenagers lose their keys, and when they do, they just, well, they just say they lost their keys’.”
She suggests we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be “aged by our culture” and says that many cultures view midlife as mature adulthood.
In a chapter entitled The Middle in Motion – the Midlife Crisis Conspiracy , Strauch argues that the idea that most of us will suffer some sort of midlife crisis has been hugely exaggerated. Based on a small study of artists in 1965 and then taken up since by Gail Sheehy in Passages and psychologist Daniel Levinson in his book The Seasons of a Man’s Life, she says the idea of a midlife crisis as predictable and common has long been discounted in academic circles. Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen says: “There is no absolutely no empirical evidence for a midlife crisis.”
One study of nearly 8,000 Americans found that only 5 per cent reported any kind of midlife trauma, and they were, by and large, people who’d had traumas throughout their lives. Similarly, Strauch argues that numbers of women who suffer a crisis at the menopause may be exaggerated.
Yet she doesn’t deny that there can be a fair amount of stress in midlife, but she argues that by then, we can cope with it better. As one researcher put it, by midlife “we are equipped for overload”.
She also argues that many older people want to continue to work beyond traditional mandatory retirement ages. “The world is set up to treat a middle-aged brain not as ripe, ready and whole but as diminished, declining and depressed,” she writes.
Ultimately, Strauch wants us all to reappraise the middle-aged brain. “Part of our memory – certainly the part that remembers names – wanes. But, at the same time, our ability to make accurate judgments about people, about jobs, about finances – about the world around us – grows stronger.”
Have heart! We are not getting older, we are getting better!
Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™