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The Surprising Strengths Of The Middle-Aged Brain

Barbara Strauch started having senior moments a few years ago.

"I [went] downstairs to try to get paper towels [and] by the time I got down there I couldn't remember what I went down there for," she says. "It was driving me crazy. I couldn't remember what I had for breakfast or the movie I saw last weekend. And you know, we all have a lot going on in our lives, but I think there was sort of a qualitative difference in this. Things ... vanished from my brain, and I was concerned. ... So I began to think, 'What is going on? Where do those names go? ... What is happening in middle age that makes our brains so forgetful?' "

Strauch was well positioned to seek answers to those questions -- she's the health and medical science editor at The New York Times -- and she writes about her quest in her new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.

The bad news: Our brains do decline as we age.

The good news: Forgetting names, Strauch says, doesn't necessarily mean that something's amiss.

"What [scientists are] starting to do is sort out what is normal aging [and] what is pathology and leading toward dementia -- and they now know that dementia is not inevitable, and that basically this 'normal forgetting' is part of normal aging. And in many ways we can -- if we keep ourselves healthy -- actually improve our brains. ... We can live actually throughout our lives with pretty sharp brains if we're lucky."

On Distractions

One of the most troublesome parts of growing older, says Strauch, is that humans grow more distracted as they age. You may start to think of brining your Thanksgiving turkey, for instance, while driving along a highway.

But don't worry: That's totally normal.

"These thoughts simply bounce out of our heads," Strauch says. "What is happening, [scientists] think, is that you can suddenly -- as you age -- fall into what they call sort of a default mode. This is kind of a daydreaming mode. It's kind of an inner dialogue. ... And what they think happens is that you do tend to fall into a daydreaming default mode more easily. And this default daydreaming mode is brand new. They didn't know it existed in the brain before, and they're now studying it and trying to figure out how that happens."

Researchers who study brain scans find that as humans age, their processing speed may be a bit slower, and they might miss a beat while first trying to focus on something.

"So one thing they tell you is to focus very, very hard at the beginning of things so that you can sort of get past that moment where sometimes we are more distracted," she says.

On Forgetting

Another common indication of aging is growing more forgetful. But memory, says Strauch, is made up of different components, some of which don't go away.

"As we age, certain parts of our memory remain robust. For instance, our autobiographical stuff ... stays with us, she says. "Other things, like how to ride a bike, how to swing a tennis racket ... habits ... do not go away."

But episodic memory -- the memory we have for things in context -- tends to falter. For example, forgetting the name of someone you're talking to or drawing a blank when trying to come up with a book title.

"Short-term memory for names gets a little bit dicey along the way," Strauch says. "And the problem with names is not a storage issue. It's a retrieval issue. Those names are not really lost. They're just kind of temporarily misplaced. ... The way that they're stored in our brain -- the sound of the name and the information about what that name is -- is kind of weak."

She recommends silently reciting the alphabet in your head while trying to come up with a name. Sometimes this mental trick will jog the correct pathways when a name is on the tip of your tongue.

Improvements In Brain Function

But not all is lost in middle age. There are certain cognitive functions that actually improve as a brain grows older. Strauch points to studies that indicate that a sense of well-being peaks -- across all occupations and ethnicities -- as people reach middle age. In addition, she says, certain studies show that an older brain can solve problems better than a younger brain.

"We think we're sort of the smartest in college or in graduate school, but when we do the tests we find that's not true in many areas, including inductive reasoning," she says. "We are better than we were in our 20s. And that to me is amazing."

In fact, Strauch says, "there is a whole host of areas where they find we improve in middle age over our 20-something selves."

"We are better at getting the gist of arguments," she says. "We are better at recognizing categories. And we're much better at sizing up situations. We're better at things like making financial decisions, which reaches a peak in our 60s. Social expertise -- in other words, judging whether someone's a crook or not a crook, improves and peaks in middle age."

In other words, we've been trained to think that aging equals decline -- but that's just not true.

"On the contrary," Strauch says. In some of the categories that matter most, "our brains are functioning probably at their best in our new modern middle age."

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