Sitting in my email inbox is a message with this subject line: “Five memory-killing foods you should NEVER eat!” But does this email tell me what they are? No, of course not, because the spammer who sent it wants me to click on their hack-trap link. The email is from someone named “Alzheimer Cure,” whose address is gaynell at brendy dot lookharbor dot info. Hmmmm.
Clearly, Gaynell, you have not heard the good news about the middle-aged brain. Turns out I am not a), so dumb and desperate I’m going to open your email or b), on some grim downward slide that started around 25, when my brain peaked, and will continue until I keel over.
Clearly, Mr. or Ms. Gaynell at Brendy dot Lookharbor, you have not read the book I just read: The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, by New York Times science editor Barbara Strauch.
This is a book is packed with good news: the kind of news that tends to slip under the radar because it is so counter-cultural and confusing to our youth-worshipping media world. Strauch’s mission is to bring us up to date on the brain research of the past few decades, nearly all of which refutes the prevailing cultural brain myth of our time: namely, that young brains work better.
She does not deny the specific ways in which youthful brains have it over middle-aged or older brains, which mostly have to do with speed and short-term recall. But she paints a fascinating picture of the ways in which our brains not only compensate for those age-related changes, but in most cases, vastly over-compensate. I am simplifying 200 pages of great science writing here, but the main point is this: what we lose in speed and recall we more than make up for in judgment, which builds up over decades of perceiving, discerning, weighing, deciding. Wisdom: that’s the old-fashioned word for this.
And even as those of us over 45 lament our inability to instantly recall names or keyboard shortcuts, we get a lot of mileage out of our accrued wisdom. But we rarely acknowledge this, even to ourselves. All our lives have been spent in the era of youth-worship, of middle-aged crises, of the acceptance of inevitable brain deterioration. Experience, mastery, knowledge—those are not words we’ve been conditioned to value, not in the same way we value words like innovation, genius and start-up.
About that notion of brain deterioration: recent research shows not only do we not lose large numbers of neurons over time, our brains are actually capable of making new neurons. Or, as Strauch puts it, “scientists now believe that the brain does not undergo complete disintegration as we age.” Not only that, but—and here, perhaps, our obsession with youth should get a nod—researchers can now clearly see the connections between exercise, nutrition, cognitive engagement and brain health. Especially exercise. Which means: if you want your wise, middle-aged brain to stay in great shape, there ARE things you can do. Number one: stay physically active. Thirty minutes or more, five times a week, or more.
Strauch thinks it’s time for a “middle-aged revolution.” After all, she says, the numbers are on our side. Maybe we need a better label, though. The word “youth” has such a nice whoosh to it. “Middle-aged,” not so much.
Let’s all go for a long walk, run or bike ride and think about it.
News Flash: Our film Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story is now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.