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'The Grown-Up Brain': Sharper Than Once Thought

Say you spent an hour in a crowded area like Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, asking middle-aged adults a single question: "So, how's your brain functioning these days?" You might hear answers like these:

"Well, I ran into somebody that I had worked with for several years and could not remember her name at all, and it was really embarrassing," says Ruth Alice White.

Pat Hardy says, "I'm dismayed by the number of times I walk into a room, and then I look around and say wait a minute, what's in here that I could have come for?"

"I forgot something really big last weekend, and I can't remember what it is!" says Jennifer Turvold. "It was like some place I needed to be, or like I took the kids to the wrong place -- it was pretty funny in hindsight, like I can't believe I forgot that -- but I did."

Brains Can Flourish In Middle Age

"Little stumbles," we might call them -- although they can feel like pratfalls. And we're not imagining them. Scientists tell us that as we careen through middle age, our brains do slow down. We have trouble retrieving names, or we get easily distracted. But the news is nowhere as bad as we think. In fact, science writer Barbara Strauch set out to explain why our brains falter in middle age, and wound up writing a book about how they can flourish.

The book is called The Secret Life of The Grown-up Brain, and by grown-up, she means people roughly between the ages of 40 and 65.

In her book, Strauch details studies that suggest that the middle-aged brain is not on a steady decline, and actually improves in a number of areas as time passes.

"There [are] some studies that started in the '50s that traced the same people throughout their lives," Strauch tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne. "And they find that in this middle span, we get higher scores on all our tests in a whole range of areas, including inductive reasoning, verbal memory, vocabulary -- we're better in that span than we were in our 20s."

'The Brain Sees Connections'

In addition, Strauch says white matter, which is composed of fat and coats the tails of brain cells, is important to the middle-aged brain.

"As we do things, as we learn things, the white matter increases and the brain signals move faster," she says. "And this was also a shock but they find that the white matter peaks in middle age. So that itself might [help explain] middle-aged wisdom. Because the brain sees connections, it sees the full picture. And one friend of mine, she's an AIDS doctor in her 50s, she says 'When I walk into a hospital room now, I can size up the situation much faster.' We get to the gist of an argument faster."

'Get Your Blood Boiling'

Finally, Strauch says exercise and mental stimulation are two of the most important things people can do to maintain a healthy brain, and that, when it comes to stimulation, people might have to work harder than they anticipated.

"I think that crossword puzzles are thought to be not enough anymore," she says. "You're kind of retrieving stuff you already know, there's nothing wrong with them -- but what they do know is that one way or another, you have to push your brain very hard. You have to make it not comfortable. And there's some science that says that even talking with people who disagree with you is good basically. It helps you sharpen your own thinking, it challenges those – the brain likes a good rut and we need to kick them out of those ruts a little bit. If you always watch MSNBC, maybe you should switch to Fox for a little bit, just to get your blood boiling a little bit."

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