March 10, 2011

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain

The other day while contributing to a lively dinner conversation, I stopped cold in the middle of a word that began with "con..." Ryan kindly supplied me with two suitable endings, one of which was "conflict" and the other of which I have forgotten, but in any case, I was able to finish my thought. True, I had a cold and was not at my sharpest, but this kind of lapse is pretty common for me these days. So I've been hugely comforted in reading this book by Barbara Strauch subtitled "The Suprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind." She shows that this type of memory lapse is also typical for neurophysicists, Nobel Laureates and almost every ordinary person in their fifties and beyond. Our brains do slow down as we age and we do have memory lapses. But the really encouraging thing is that, at the same time it is slowing down, the middle-aged brain has some very good competencies that enable us to do extremely well at some things - in some cases better than we did when we were younger.

Strauch says the middle-aged brain retains connections between a great range of ideas and from its vast experience can make excellent judgments about complicated matters. People she interviewed tended to be down on themselves for forgetting stuff, but if she pressed them, many would eventually admit that they actually felt they were doing better than they ever had at their jobs and were making really good decisions. Strauch shows that this is measurable and is being proven to be true in many studies.

One really interesting thing she describes is that middle-aged and older people tend to look on the positive side of things. Studies show that this is a choice the aging brain makes, perhaps to protect itself from further harm that can be caused by stress. I guess I'm the extreme example of this in that the older I get the less tolerant I seem to be of gratuitous negativity. Strauch says these people are not unrealistic: they look at the negative as well as the positive - look at it as long as younger people do - and then choose a positive approach. This seems like wisdom to me.

Strauch also discusses the current idea of brain reserve - that you can build up your brain to be stronger so that you're less likely to get dementia. This book documents what I have also read before - that occasionally someone will die with their minds fully intact and sharp, and when their brains are examined, they are found to be full of the plaques and tangles typical of severe Alzheimer's. These people, scientists think, have developed brain reserves to enable them to function extremely well in spite of having severely compromised brain structures.

There are numerous theories about how reserves might be built: doing lots of crossword puzzles, eating well, antioxidants, sociability etc. and there are indications that all of them could be helpful, but little solid research to prove it. The two factors the research does back up as protective are education and exercise. Better-educated people are less at risk for dementia, and people who do regular aerobic exercise have better memories and a better chance of avoiding Alzheimer's. Some of the results on exercise were so conclusive that Strauch says they had the researchers reaching for their running shoes.

Half of all people over 85 will eventually get some kind of dementia. But if dementia can be delayed even by 5 years, there's a great chance that you will die of something else and never have to suffer the indignities of Alzheimer's.

There are lots of books about the brain out there these days; it's a topic forgetful baby boomers are pretty interested in right now. Strauch is a science journalist rather than a scientist, but she's done her homework and produced a highly readable and encouraging book.

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