SPRAGGETT ON CHESS
If you are like me, over 50 and of the baby boomer generation, then we just refuse to grow older! It is a matter of principle! However, our body has a mind of its own, and growing older is all about you and your relationship with your brain. Barbara Strauch has spent a lifetime studying and writing about how the brain works at various phases of a person’s life. Here is a great article published by her in Reader’s Digest that deals with the brain and aging.
How the Brain Benefits With Aging
Why you’re getting smarter with age…
(ADAPTED FROM “THE SECRET LIFE OF THE GROWN-UP BRAIN,” COPYRIGHT © 2010 BY BARBARA STRAUCH)
Recently, I tried–really tried–to buy a book for my book club. I went online and ordered The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. Then, a week later, I had a free moment at work, and I thought, Oh, I should order that book club book. I went online and carefully typed in an order for The Alchemist–again.
A few days later, as I was jogging in the park, a faint bell went off in my head, and I thought, I bet I ordered the wrong book. At home, I checked my e-mail, and, sure enough, we were supposed to read The Archivist, by Martha Cooley.
I’d ordered the wrong book-twice.
And that wasn’t the end of it. Later that week, I was talking with a fellow book club member, a neurologist, who, after hearing my embarrassing story, started to laugh. It turned out that she’d gone to the library and had just as carefully selected a copy of The Alienist, by Caleb Carr.
So there you go. Two middle-aged brains, three wrong books.
We all worry about getting old. We all worry about getting sick. But we really worry about losing our minds. Will we forget to tie our shoes or zip our flies? Will we fumble our words and fall into our soup? Are our brains on an inevitable slide?
The quick answer is no. I looked into this subject partly because I wrote a book some years ago on the teenage brain. After it came out, I’d sometimes give talks on the topic for juvenile-justice or school groups, and I would usually be driven to the airport by the person who had arranged the event. More often than not, that person, like me, was middle-aged, and as we drove along, he or she would say something like “You know, you should write a book about my brain. It’s horrible-I can’t remember a thing. I forget where I’m going or why. And the names-the names are awful. It’s scary.” I would smile and nod, thinking of my own middle-aged brain. Where do all the names go?
Eventually, I spent considerable time tracking down those lost names, talking to researchers and digging into the latest science to find out what goes wrong in middle age and what it means. And I found something un-expected-not bad news but good.
Yes, the brain at middle age has lost a step. Our problems are not imaginary, and our worries are not unreasonable. But neuroscientists have found that the middle-aged brain actually has surprising talents. It’s developed powerful systems that can cut through the intricacies of complex problems to find concrete answers. It more calmly manages emotions and information and is cheerier than in younger years. Indeed, one new series of fascinating studies suggests that the way our brains age may give us a broader perspective on the world, a capacity to see patterns, connect the dots, even be more creative.
“From what we know now,” says Laura Carstensen, PhD, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University, “I’d have to say that the middle-aged brain is downright formidable.”
All this may be hard to believe. A friend once told me that she sometimes catches herself putting the bananas in the laundry chute. How can we possibly be smarter and be tossing the bananas into the laundry basket?
First, some evidence that we are, indeed, a bit smarter, at least in some ways. For that, look at one of the longest, largest, and most respected studies of people as they age, the Seattle Longitudinal Study, which has tracked the mental prowess of 6,000 people for more than 40 years. The study found that, on average, participants performed better on cognitive tests in middle age than they had in early adulthood. From age 40 through their 60s, people did better on tests of vocabulary, spatial orientation skills (imagining what an object would look like if it were rotated 180 degrees), and inductive reasoning than they had when they were in their 20s.
Sure, we feel dumber. Studies explain that too: They show that we really do have more difficulty with name retrieval, particularly the names of those we’ve not seen in a while. Our brains also slow down a bit. For instance, if chess players compete in a game that depends on speed–say they’re given a few seconds to move a piece–younger players usually beat older players. And brain scanners show that the parts of the brain that specialize in daydreaming get more active as we age–no wonder we feel so distractible. But the bottom line is that the middle-aged brain can deliver in ways that matter.
Some of my favorite research on this looked at people in jobs where performance really counts: air-traffic controllers and pilots. In both studies, the researchers put older and younger professionals into simulators to see how they responded to demanding tasks, like coping with computer crashes and conflicting information (for the air-traffic controllers) or avoiding traffic and keeping track of cockpit instruments (for the pilots). Younger controllers were a little faster than older ones; younger pilots performed better than older ones early in the three-year study. But the seasoned pros in both professions did just as well or better on what mattered: keeping planes apart.
You see the same thing in studies on bridge players, chess masters, and bank managers: Memory and speed decline, but experience makes up for it. “If what you are doing depends on knowledge, then you’re going to do very well as you get older,” says psychology professor Neil Charness, PhD, of Florida State University. “And it makes sense. Which would you rather have on your team: a highly experienced 55-year-old chess master or a 25-year-old novice?”
What accounts for the against-all-odds prowess of the middle-aged brain? Practice, for starters–all those years spent wrangling planes or managing a household or heading to the office. Compensatory strategies, too-like making lists, lots of them, and pausing before you go into a party to summon the names of the people you’re likely to see. But we’re also aided by measurable brain changes. Some make us more optimistic as we age. Consider the amygdala–a structure deep in the brain that operates as your body’s Homeland Security Department, the alert system that assesses potential threats. Researchers have found that as we get older, our amygdala reacts less to negative things. It still responds when there’s a real threat but is less likely to get fired up every time a passerby frowns at you. That seems to help us do a better job of maintaining emotional stability. And we all know that those who can calmly assess a situation generally have an advantage.
Older brains are also better at making connections, research shows. Yes, you take longer to assimilate new information. But faced with information that relates to what you already know, your brain tends to work quicker and smarter, discerning patterns and jumping to the logical end point.
A friend of mine who’s been a doctor for more than 30 years said she can now often instantly evaluate a situation, making it easier to come up with effective solutions. “When I walk into a hospital room, there’s a lot in my head already,” she said. “In many cases, I can foresee what will happen, and that helps a lot.”
All of this adds up to exciting news–and a dilemma. After all, age discrimination is a fact. In 2002, researcher Joanna Lahey, PhD, now at Texas A&M University, sent out 4,000 résumés and found that a younger worker was more than 40 percent more likely to be called in for an interview, compared with a worker over age 50.
We’ve extended our lives by dozens of years, and we’re finding tantalizing new ways to extend our brain spans too. But we haven’t taken a nanosecond to think about what to do with all those better years and better brains.
We need a new plan. Right now, we have to do too much in our early and middle adulthood–we frantically juggle kids and work, and it can feel like everything gets short shrift. Then later, when our brains are still blooming, we’re often forced to stop working; we’re made irrelevant. Perhaps it’s time for a middle-age revolution. The best way to start, to my mind, is to finally give our middle-aged brains the respect they deserve.
is health and medical science editor and a deputy science editor at The New York Times and the author of “The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids.”
She previously covered science and medical issues in Boston and Houston and directed Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism at Newsday.
4 Brain Boosters
Your mental acuity doesn’t have to decline. Read on for ways to keep that brain humming along. Also, find out how the brain actually benefits from aging.
Researchers used to think people lost 30 percent of their neurons as they aged. Now neuroscientists say that if you’re healthy, you’ll keep most of your neurons for your entire life. Here are some of the most promising ways to keep those brain cells in top form.
Seek out different ideas and challenging people. By middle age, your brain has developed millions of networks of neurons-pathways that are strengthened every time you recall a given memory. These pathways help you solve familiar problems more easily than your younger peers. But if you always use the same well-worn routes to process information, your brain is less likely to get the stimulation it needs to spur development of new networks. You can get that kind of stimulation from what adult-learning expert Jack Mezirow, PhD, calls a disorienting dilemma-something that shakes up your thinking. Try reading a book that challenges your long-held assumptions on a topic, seriously considering a political viewpoint other than your own, or taking up an instrument or a new language. The key is to get out of your comfort zone.
Use your imagination. If you want to remember to buy a quart of milk on the way home from work, it can help if you imagine yourself taking it off the store shelf and paying for it. Studies by neuroscientist Denise Park, PhD, now at the University of Texas at Dallas, have shown that visualizing upcoming activities forces information into additional parts of your brain, creating a larger “neural footprint” and giving you more ways to remember what you need to do.
Pay attention at the start. Brain scanners show that by middle age, your brain tends to have more trouble ignoring distractions in order to focus on new information, such as when you’re introduced to someone new. As a result, that person’s name may be stored in your memory less effectively. To avoid embarrassment next time you run into what’s-his-name, be extra careful to pay attention from the get-go.
Exercise-and then exercise some more. Like your heart, your brain needs good blood flow to stay vital, and the best way to get it is through regular exercise. Neurobiologist Fred Gage, PhD, of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, has shown that physical activity even prompts the growth of new brain cells. Those baby cells may help us cope with new experiences, Gage says-and actually enjoy them.
Secrets of the Middle-Aged Mind
1. We are smarter than ever in middle age. In most areas, including reasoning, we improve as we age, and peak cognitive performance actually occurs in our 40s through 60s – and not in our 20s, as many had thought. It’s true that some glitches develop: Remembering names gets harder, and brain-processing speed slows down. But for most of what we do in middle age, it turns out that those skills might not matter that much. In areas as diverse as inductive reasoning and vocabulary, our brains continue to develop. What’s more, as we age we get better at getting the “gist” of arguments, making judgments of character, or even finances. And each generation is now smarter than its parents were in middle age.
2. We grow happier with age. We’ve all been conditioned to dread middle age, a time of midlife crises and empty nests. But there is no evidence for such widespread angst. Instead, research shows that we actually become happier during this period. In part, this is because our brains start acting differently by reacting less to the negative, a trait that may have developed because the grown-ups who were more optimistic could take better care of their young. And the idea that we get more depressed or troubled in midlife is a myth. New long-term studies that have followed real people in their lives for years find that men and women have a greater sense of well-being in middle age. Those who are in crisis, the studies show, have tended to have crises throughout their lives, not just in middle age.
We’ve all been conditioned to dread middle age. But … we actually become happier during this period.
The brain does not lose millions of brain cells. For years, researchers thought our brains lost up to 30 percent of their neurons as we got older. That idea led science to largely ignore the brain as it aged. Why waste time researching something that was going to decay on a set schedule? Now, new studies show that while we can lose brain connections if they are unused, we keep most of our brain cells for as long as we live. This means that the quest to find real ways to maintain our brain cells is now being taken up in earnest.
4. The brain is like the heart: It needs blood. Nutrients, as well as certain growth chemicals produced by muscles when they exercise, are now known to cross the blood-brain barrier into the brain, which needs healthy blood flow as much as our heart. This, too, overturns longtime scientific dogma that for many years said the brain was protected, but also was so insulated that it could not be improved. There are many things we can do to keep our brains in gear. Indeed, exercise has now been shown to be one of the best things you can do. Not only does exercise pump blood through our brain’s blood vessels, but it also prompts the creation of new brain cells, even at older ages. Scientists at Columbia University and elsewhere have watched these new cells be born in the brains of animals and humans who have exercised.
5. Crossword puzzles are not enough. In fact, if we want to keep our brains sharp, we need to move beyond just recalling information we know (the main activity with crossword puzzles) and instead push them to experience new ideas to create and nourish new brain connections. This can mean anything that gets us out of our “comfort zones,” including making new friends, learning to play the cello — or even confronting ideas and people who disagree with us. One longtime researcher at Columbia University says that if we want our grown-up brains to stretch, we have to present them with a “disorienting dilemma” — in particular ideas or concepts that challenge our view of the world. As one researcher put it, we need to “shake up the cognitive egg” and push ourselves to consider other viewpoints.
SPRAGGETT ON CHESS