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Book Review: The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain

Occasional Forgetfulness Just Part of the Picture

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The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain is Barbara Strauch's tribute to the middle-aged mind.

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain is Barbara Strauch's tribute to the middle-aged mind.

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If you've ever forgotten a friend's name and labeled it a "senior moment," you need to read this book. You'll gain an appreciation of the powers of your grown-up brain. The world may regard our brains, the author suggests, as "diminished, declining and depressed," but the truth is that they are inventive, adaptive and surprisingly efficient, although occasionally forgetful. The subtitle says it all: "The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind." Want suggestions for ways to keep your brain brawny and your synapses firing? This book has those, too. You'll never apologize for your brain again!

The Middle-Aged Brain Isn't Middling in Power

My daughter told me that she understood her teenagers much better after reading The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids. When I heard that the author, Barbara Strauch, had turned her attention to the middle-aged brain, I knew that her book was a must-read.

Strauch delivers. She elucidates the workings of the brain in understandable language and provides a welcome bonus: She lets us know that we don’t have to feel bad about our brains. They may have lost some processing speed and they may not retrieve information with their old swiftness, but they have gained other qualities. And, unless your life plan hinges on winning Jeopardy, the qualities that our brains gain are more helpful than the ones that we lose.

One study of people aged forty to sixty-five compared individuals’ test scores with the scores earned by the same individuals in their twenties. The test scores for the older subjects were higher in four of the six areas tested, leading the researcher to conclude that peak cognitive performance is not reached until middle age. As a longitudinal study--one that follows the same subjects over time--this research has major significance.

Exploring the Way the Brain Works

The second section of Strauch's book is titled "The Inner Workings." Unless you are a neurologist, it's a little tougher sledding than the first part. Still, even a layman can come out with a grasp of several basic concepts about the aging brain:

  • The key characteristic of the brain as it ages is its variability. The gap between the best-functioning brains and the most poorly functioning widens.
  • Middle-aged brains have a knack for bilateralism--for using both sides of the brain.
  • The brains of some people exhibit a built-in resistance to cognitive decline, which some researchers term "cognitive reserve."
  • Cognitive reserve seems to be positively correlated with education levels.
The idea of cognitive reserve has been a lightning rod for controversy. Researchers don't agree on much about the topic. In addition, the connection between cognitive reserve and education presents what Strauch calls "a serious chicken-and-egg problem." Do those with better brains to start with simply seek out more education? In spite of the differences of opinion, researchers are avidly exploring the next step--what we can do to boost the vitality of our brains.

Building Healthier Brains

The third part, titled "Healthier Brains," deals with exercise, nutrition and brain exercise. What strategies will help our brains function better for longer?

Brain imaging technology indicates that physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, is exceedingly good for the brain. In fact, researchers are finding that it actually creates new brain cells. The picture for nutrition is less clear. While there is some evidence that foods high in antioxidants boost brain power, zero long-term clinical trials have proven a connection. Unfortunately, the same is true of programs that aim to train the brain. Users of such programs may do better on the particular tasks they practice, but there is little hard evidence that such programs reduce forgetfulness or improve performance on everyday tasks.

So What About That Forgetfulness?

Most middle-aged people have accepted changes in their bodies. They've lost strength and flexibility without any real compensation. The middle-aged brain loses processing speed and what is termed "episodic memory," but it compensates with increased power in other areas. Middle-aged people who find themselves "on the foggy planet of lost keys and misplaced thoughts" may have to learn new ways of coping, such as list-making and note-taking. But they are rewarded with minds that see the big picture, that are capable of flashes of insight, that can solve problems of enormous complexity. Forgetfulness may just be a small price to pay for gaining, as the book's subtitle puts it, "The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind."

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