Brains, Like Red Wine, Get Better With Age

In The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind, New York Times health and medical science editor Barbara Strauch writes about ways the brain actually improves with age, and discusses what recent studies say about keeping the brain in tip-top shape.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

We are not being distracted for the rest of the hour. We're going to be focusing our brain on the brain, but - talk more about brains like mine, maybe yours, and I'm talking about the middle-aged brain. Because as we get older, as your hair goes gray, your wrinkles appear, your joints ache, and, of course, if you're middle-aged, you're probably very familiar with how aging changes our minds, too. You know? The senior moments.

I thought I had something on the tip of my tongue. Where was that? What was I doing? Where did I put my glasses? You know, your keys, you're dropping names, the star of that classic movie. You know, I think, "Senior Jeopardy" should have only three questions in it, because it takes so long to pull that out. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...it's always on the tip of your tongue. There'll only be three questions in that half an hour. So it's hiding somewhere up there in the recesses of your brain.

And we've been taught to expect, right, that as we get older, this is going to happen. But it's not all bad news, because despite all the more obvious effects of aging, it turns out that, in many ways, brains actually improve with age, according to my next guest. And it's not just in smarts, but also in terms of happiness, people skills and judgment. But why does that happen later in life, and is there any way to boost your brain and keep yourself fit, your brain and your body fit for longer?

Joining me now to talk about it is Barbara Strauch. She's the author of "The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind." She's also health and medical science editor at the New York Times. And she is here in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. BARBARA STRAUCH (Health and Medical Science Editor, New York Times): Yeah. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Barbara, what is the most surprising thing about your research when you were doing this book?

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, I think I have a middle-aged brain, so I was concerned. Like everybody else, I have those what - the horrible term, senior moment, you know? You go downstairs, wonder what you're - by the time you get there, you have no idea why you went there, you know? You don't know what movie you saw, you know, what you ate for breakfast. So I think that's where I set it out - set out try to figure out where all those names go, you know? The glasses that we can't find, and they're on top of our heads.

So what was most surprising, I think, was the flipside, that the modern middle aged is really new for the species, with so many people very healthy going through this long stretch in the middle now. And we really have brains that are quite formidable and continue to improve in such areas - and, in fact, brains in middle age are better than they were in their 20s in such areas as reasoning.

FLATOW: Yeah. That's an important thing.

We're talking about our middle-aged brain this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here with Barbara Strauch, author of "The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain."

So we do get better at - so is this a myth, that we're losing all our brain cells as we get older and it's just all downhill for you and I?

Ms. STRAUCH: Right. It seems to be a myth, luckily.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STRAUCH: I think for a long time, even the scientists thought that we lost as many as 30 percent of our brain cells as we aged. And many people -many scientists didn't bother looking at the aging brain because why - you know, why bother? It was on the way downhill. It was, you know, a young brain turning old, and who cared? A lot of research was done in nursing homes, and they didn't find brains that were very vital there.

So what they now know with these new sophisticated tools they have and really long-term studies of 40 years of data now of real people that they've watched through their lives. They find that a lot of the stereotypes that we have of middle age are completely erroneous.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What kind are you - one thing that you say that improves when we get older is happiness.

Ms. STRAUCH: Yes.

FLATOW: We're happier people.

Ms. STRAUCH: Right. I think that goes against what everybody thought, actually - me, too. You know, I grew up reading John Updike and, you know, Gail Sheehy. And it was all supposed to be forlorn 40s and, you know, a lot of, you know, fat bellies and looking for red Porsches and young things.

And what we find when you look at the research is that those narratives that we have in our culture are based on science that is almost nonexistent. It was probably very small studies based on, you know, a time period that might have evaporated already.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. STRAUCH: And midlife crisis, the empty nest syndrome, neither one are based, really, on real science. and they find, on the contrary, that as they watch these people go through middle age, well, the sense of well-being actually increases and sometimes peaks as late as 65.

FLATOW: And we've discovered areas in the brain that get better.

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, we do. And that, in the happiness area, there's also some very good brain science now that shows - they actually looked inside the brain and found this little area called the amygdala, which is a very primitive part of the brain. And that's the one that's set up to, you know, keep us away from crocodiles, and it's set up to respond to the negative and the scary.

And what we find as people age, they've watched their brains in brain scanners, and, oddly, they start to respond more to the positive and less to the negative as we age. And I think that was a huge surprise. And there may be some evolutionary roots for it.

FLATOW: Hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you'd like - if you have an aging brain like, I guess, we all do and you'd like to talk about some of your experience and now you may be getting better at aging.

We're taking about the aging brain, "The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind," with Barbara Strauch.

Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can also Twitter us. Send a tweet @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. And also, go our website. It's sciencefriday.com, where lots of folks are discussing this. Let us know if you - what you think.

We have to take a break. We're going to come back after this short break and take your calls and listen and watch some of your tweets. And stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

We are talking with Barbara Strauch about "The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind." Why would - if evolution - and you touched on this briefly. If evolutionarily speaking, our brains get better, yet historically, if you look back at the history of the human race, we didn't live very long, right? We lived...

Ms. STRAUCH: Right.

FLATOW: ...until the 30s, maybe the 40s.

Ms. STRAUCH: Right, right.

FLATOW: So why? How does that jibe, one with the other?

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, it's a very good question. And I think what we have now with these expanded life spans, you know, as you say, at the turn of the century, our average life was 48, and now it's 78. And those are averages. And everybody knows people who are living way longer. We have this expanded time in the middle. And I think no one really knew what would happen - what would be happening with our brains. Most people thought that it would be just kind of a gradual slide into old age.

And again, with the happiness and with the sense of well-being, there are -there is some thought that - even earlier, that people who were older and had a sense of get-up-and-go and energy and optimism were actually better able to take care of those that were younger in their care and that their tribe, their group thrived better. So they may be some reasons that the brain is set up to be this way. And now with our longer middle-age, we just have a longer time to be that way and more people to do that.

And so, I think we see it all over the place. I have an aunt who's 86 in Monterey, California. And I watched her with her attitude really hold together generation after generation. And it's nice to see, and I think many of us have examples, if we're lucky, of that in our lives.

FLATOW: Does physical exercise help you...?

Ms. STRAUCH: Oh, yeah. Sadly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STRAUCH: It is the superstar in aging brain research. It is the one with the most solid data behind it. You know, study after study after study shows that the brain - you know, they used to think that the brain was more protected. It was behind this blood-brain barrier. And the stuff we did with our bodies didn't really matter much to our brains, good or bad. And now, we know that that's really not the case. Nutrients get through there. The chemicals, the growth chemicals from when we contract our muscles with our bodies get through there. More importantly, of course, the oxygen is hugely important to keep those brain cells alive. And they find physical exercise can increase brain volume. It increases cognitive scores. And it even produces new baby brain cells.

FLATOW: That's one thing we never thought would happen before.

Ms. STRAUCH: Not in a grown-up brain. No, no, no.

FLATOW: Yeah. We never thought you had new brain cells.

Ms. STRAUCH: No. And it's in a pretty crucial area, in the hippocampus, which does the memory stuff. So they're not quite sure why they're there, why they pop up, but they think it's a good thing.

FLATOW: I think it's a good thing.

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah, seems like a good thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Richard in Marcellus, New York. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

RICHARD (Caller): Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call. I've been a fan of yours for a long time.

FLATOW: Thank you.

RICHARD: I just wanted to throw in my comments. I've been in a profession which is mostly mental exercise for over 50 years - in fact, all at the same company which, I guess, makes me kind of an odd person to begin with. But I think staying active if you can and being in something where you use your mind every day to solve problems is a big key to keeping the brain young. Also, you touched a minute ago on physical exercise, but mental exercise of any kind is important, even doing crosswords puzzles and so forth. And what is most important is don't multitask. That was your former interview that inspired me to call.

I had a client a few years ago that was a high-powered person that called three times a day to see how I was doing. And he called one day and said - and I wasn't in, and he said, well, what's his cell phone number? And before the secretary could even answer, he said, oh, he's over 65. He's not stupid enough to carry one of those things around.

And I think that, you know, that's something that the younger group has got to learn, that you have to concentrate on things and that you have to use your mind daily and continue to use it.

FLATOW: All right, Richard. Thanks for those hints. Have a good weekend.

RICHARD: Thanks.

FLATOW: Research on brain exercises? Show that they help?

Ms. STRAUCH: Right. They - well, there is some. I mean, we have a lot of games out there. There's a lot of hype out there, as well, expensive stuff being sold, supposedly to help our brains. But the real science is slim. And there's one system that's been shown to work and actually improve cognitive scores, and it's a really difficult one. It makes our brain differentiate between sounds like woosh and koosh and pat and cat.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. STRAUCH: And what they think it does is - one thing it does is make the brain focus at the very beginning. And, in fact, your previous guest, Dr. Gazzaley, has done a lot of research which shows that as the brain ages, there may be this millisecond of distraction that could come from the processing speed which slows down in all of us. And for that millisecond, we may not get the signals in quite right, so that if we do try to focus hard in the beginning, that may help, actually. So we do need to concentrate and realize that we are, as we age, kind of involuntary multi-taskers, in a way. Our brains are being distracted even if we don't want them to be, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And I know you're a science writer. In all your research for doing the book - about the book, did you come across anything about sleep?

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, sleep is huge, of course. And everybody knows that the -it's important for the brain - nobody knows, of course, what sleep is for.

FLATOW: Right, right.

Ms. STRAUCH: It's probably for, as you know, many, many, many things in our bodies, in our brains. But, clearly, the brain cells need to recoup. They need to organize what they have learned. And those things seem key. And so...

FLATOW: But we supposedly need or get less sleep as we get old.

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, we do. You know, the teenagers, of course, we know sleep forever. And there seems to be some reason for that. Their brains seem to go into this, you know, 10 hours of sleep and - we settle down into like seven and a half as we age. And, you know, but it is true. I think that, you know, if your brain needs - feels overloaded, if you rest it, you'll be fine.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Janice in Nashville. Hi, Janice.

JANICE (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hey, there.

JANICE: I'm glad you got to me. This is Janice Shear(ph), and I'm calling from Nashville, Tennessee. And I'm a registered nurse. And I went to nursing school when I was 50 years old.

FLATOW: Good for you.

JANICE: And I found it very challenging but very exciting. But I was very concerned that the younger people in the classes were going to sort of outrun me. And there was about three other - other ladies about my age, and we just sort of got our little group going, I guess. And by mid-semester there was a dropout period in which about half the people in the class kind of mustered out.

FLATOW: Right.

JANICE: And none of us old ladies were in that group. And now that I'm a nurse - I've been one for five years - I feel like, in general, I can reason better than the average 25-year-old. And I'm more calm. And I just feel like I'm better equipped for the job than if I had been 25 and gone a long time ago.

FLATOW: You're right out of Barbara's book, "The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain." She talks - she talks about you, Janice, don't you, Barbara?

Ms. STRAUCH: I do. I do. And congratulations. I think it's great...

JANICE: Thank you.

Ms. STRAUCH: ...than you didn't drop out, that you're a nurse and...

FLATOW: But the reasoning, the fact that - as you mentioned in the book...

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...there's more patience...

Ms. STRAUCH: Yes.

FLATOW: ...reasoning?

Ms. STRAUCH: Yes. Reasoning improves. And I think what they find also is - we get the gist of an argument. We see the big picture. And that's probably because, you know, our brains have built up these physical pathways, connections through the years that actually help us.

I have a friend who's a doctor here in New York. And she says when she gets to the hospital room, now she can really immediately size up the situation and that, you know, she can still be surprised and should be. But she leaves more room for actually coming to solutions, even creative solutions. And that's the brain that I think we have in middle age, and that we really need to appreciate a little bit more and not freak out about all the bad stuff.

FLATOW: But do people - they say as people get older they're less patient. Do you find people less patient?

Ms. STRAUCH: I don't know if that's true. I mean, everybody who has a teenager or a 20-year-old knows that patience is not their strong suit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STRAUCH: So maybe we're less patient with teenagers or people in their 20s but...

FLATOW: Well, I mean, do you recognize a bad argument faster?

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, you might get the gist of something and have less patience for something that isn't helping your brain or isn't new to your brain. I mean, I think, one thing I found along the way is that the people who study adult learners find what they are looking for - the grown-up brain is actually looking for things that will sharpen it. And they suggest that you talk to people you disagree with even, and confront things that shake up your assumptions. And that the brain is actually primed to do that.

FLATOW: Is there a difference in men and women's brains?

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, you know, that whole field is fraught with...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STRAUCH: This and that...

FLATOW: Wade in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STRAUCH: Exactly. It is fraught. You know, women's brains are smaller but they run faster, more efficient, all of that. So there are some averages that remain the same. I think men hold onto their processing speed a little bit longer and their spatial abilities. Those are talents that are on average a little bit better in males than females all the way through. And women hold on to their verbal abilities a little bit longer and are stronger in those cognitive scores in middle age, as they are when they're younger.

FLATOW: But the idea that, you know, as you say, oxygen is so important to the brain. And if men are aging, getting heart disease at younger ages...

Ms. STRAUCH: Right. Right.

FLATOW: ...they'd be getting less oxygen to their brain.

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah. You don't want diseases, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, anything like that - of course diabetes is not good for the brain. Anything that causes - of course a disease in the brain is not, is certainly not good.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's go to Susan in Oregon. Hi, Susan.

SUSAN (Caller): Hi, Ira. I have a question regarding some information I was given about 30 years ago by a neurologist who told me that for every alcoholic drink one has, we kill some number of brain cells. And in the ensuing time, we've learned that a glass of red wine is good for your heart. So I'm wondering, are these two things working against each other or is the information I was given a long time ago not supported by data?

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, I think that, you know, we're all talking about excess and moderation here and levels...

SUSAN: Well, yes. I understand.

Ms. STRAUCH: Right.

SUSAN: But I'm talking about a glass of red wine with dinner.

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah. A glass of red wine with dinner sounds like a grand idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Got about an hour to go.

SUSAN: I want you to tell me that it's just fine.

Ms. STRAUCH: Oh, I think it's just fine. And, in fact, you know, there's a lot of money riding on red wine at the moment.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. STRAUCH: You know, there is - yeah, of course. And now that we know we don't lose these brain cells, it has been amazing to watch these cognitive scientists even open up their little companies.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. STRAUCH: And the skin of the red wine grape is full of this chemical called resveratrol, and that...

FLATOW: Does grape juice work?

Ms. STRAUCH: Grape juice works. You're all looking for these antioxidants in the very colorful vegetables.

FLATOW: Blueberry.

Ms. STRAUCH: Blueberries. We all have our blueberries, yeah.

SUSAN: So you're saying I can stop worrying about losing my brain cells?

FLATOW: Go for it.

Ms. STRAUCH: Go for it, yes.

SUSAN: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SUSAN: You've made my day.

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah.

FLATOW: That's what we like to hear. Have a good weekend.

SUSAN: Bye-bye.

FLATOW: Bye-bye. So where to you is the frontier in knowing more about an aging brain or brain in general?

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, I think we want to know how - there's a group of people called - which the scientists called pristine agers. You know, these are people who are now in their 80s, 90s, even beyond. And these are people who are aging in a very healthy way. There's more of them now. They can study them now. And they're fascinating and tell us that because there's more of them and they can study them, that it's possible. And I think that's, you know, it piques my curiosity: who are these guys, you know?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. STRAUCH: Its certainly genetics but it's not all genetics. And genetics, as we know, day by day, more and more are influenced by environment. So scientists want to know who are these guys, and I would too, actually. How do they do it, and that's what they're trying to figure out. And they do believe that what we do in middle age - our brains are what they call on the cusp, and we can influence how we enter old age. And I think that's important to remember.

FLATOW: Talking about old age this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking with Barbara Strauch, author of "The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind." And as the population is aging, we need to know more about that middle-aged mind.

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, we do. There's a lot of us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STRAUCH: Worldwide, and not only are we gonna get older but there's a lot of us now. And, you know, we are in this recession, just gone through the worst of a recession. And, you know, I think we all watched in companies, you know, I was sad, actually. People in vigorous minds, 60s, 70s, you know, get kind of nudged out the door. And I think we have to rethink this.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a quick call in from Kathleen(ph) in Athens, Ohio. Hi, Kathleen. Quickly.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Yeah. Hi. I wanted to ask her about the menopause brain. I mean, the first time I, you, know, read about after menopause was Margaret Mead. I think it was "Coming of Age in Samoa." And after I went through, when I was in menopause, I could look at a lamp and not remember the name of it. And then, and I said, I started to say that friends who wouldn't fill in the blanks weren't friends. But now I'm through menopause, and I called it mental pause, and my mind is sharper than ever and clearer than ever. So I want to talk - you know, if you could address the menopause thing.

FLATOW: I'm missing out on this.

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah, sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: What about that?

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, it's fascinating and she's - what your caller was talking about is not the first time I've heard that. You know, women will say my mind went completely fuzzy and then it's better. It bounced back. And, you know, frankly, I wish we knew more about this. What we do know is that the brain is full of receptors for estrogen. Estrogen is crucial for the brain. It makes brain cells grow. So clearly as we go through menopause, you know, there's an enormous bumpy road that we have to go through while our brain adjusts to less estrogen.

And that obviously causes for some people a great deal of fuzzy brain thinking. But again, once our brain adjusts - and our brains are the most adjustable things we got - many women say just what you said, that their brains get sharper.

FLATOW: Yeah. Did that work...?

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah. I think it works. I mean, I just think that it depends in what you're doing, and every women goes through menopause in a different way and a different level. So for some it's really extreme, and some it's not so extreme. But, you know, there's other things going on. The kids are out of the house, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. STRAUCH: There's other things that happen...

FLATOW: It's so, that nature/nurture thing.

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah. That nature/nurture thing, yeah.

FLATOW: You know, it's so hard to tease out.

Ms. STRAUCH: Yeah.

FLATOW: And we don't spend all that much money on research, do we?

Ms. STRAUCH: No. No, no. We might as well just throw up our hands and say -although with genetics, I think we now know, you know, watching these genes respond to environment is really cool and interesting and we're going to know much more.

FLATOW: And we should know because, you know, the future - as one announcer once said - radio person said - the future, we're all going to spend time together in the future.

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, we hope so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Is there one question you want to know yourself, that if you're writing a book again you didn't answer that you'd like to know?

Ms. STRAUCH: Well, let me think. I mean, I'd like to know, you know, where we're going, I supposed, with - they're trying to find out this magic bullet. I'm not sure I believe much in magic bullets for the brain.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. STRAUCH: But I do - I am impressed by how fervently they're chasing it, you know, from algae to, you know, red wine and things. The neuroscientists do believe that we may come up with something that actually helps our brain. And what they're probably looking for is something that boosts the repair system in the brain. So - and of course Alzheimer's is one - is a concern. You know, and we don't know much about that.

FLATOW: Thank you, Barbara. Thanks for stopping by.

Ms. STRAUCH: Oh, thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Barbara Strauch is the author of "The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind." Great read. I recommend you all go out and get a copy and dont forget.

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The Surprising Strengths Of The Middle-Aged Brain

The Secret Life of the Grown Up Brain: Cover Detail i i
The Secret Life of the Grown Up Brain: Cover Detail
The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind
By Barbara Strauch
Hardcover, 256 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $26.95
Read an Excerpt

Barbara Strauch started having senior moments a few years ago.

"I [went] downstairs to try to get paper towels [and] by the time I got down there I couldn't remember what I went down there for," she says. "It was driving me crazy. I couldn't remember what I had for breakfast or the movie I saw last weekend. And you know, we all have a lot going on in our lives, but I think there was sort of a qualitative difference in this. Things ... vanished from my brain, and I was concerned. ... So I began to think, 'What is going on? Where do those names go? ... What is happening in middle age that makes our brains so forgetful?' "

Strauch was well positioned to seek answers to those questions — she's the health and medical science editor at The New York Times — and she writes about her quest in her new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.

The bad news: Our brains do decline as we age.

The good news: Forgetting names, Strauch says, doesn't necessarily mean that something's amiss.

"What [scientists are] starting to do is sort out what is normal aging [and] what is pathology and leading toward dementia — and they now know that dementia is not inevitable, and that basically this 'normal forgetting' is part of normal aging. And in many ways we can — if we keep ourselves healthy — actually improve our brains. ... We can live actually throughout our lives with pretty sharp brains if we're lucky."

Memory Exercises

  • If you can't remember a name, go through the alphabet in your head — A, B, C — which may retrigger the memory in your mind.
  • Exercise. Get your heart pumping, which improves cognitive function across the board.
  • If you're trying to remember to take your medication, imagine yourself taking it. This will create a bigger neural footprint in your brain, creating more ways for your brain to remember.
  • Get out of your comfort zone. Take up a hobby — piano lessons or knitting — that will challenge your brain.

Tips taken from The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain

On Distractions

One of the most troublesome parts of growing older, says Strauch, is that humans grow more distracted as they age. You may start to think of brining your Thanksgiving turkey, for instance, while driving along a highway.

But don't worry: That's totally normal.

"These thoughts simply bounce out of our heads," Strauch says. "What is happening, [scientists] think, is that you can suddenly — as you age — fall into what they call sort of a default mode. This is kind of a daydreaming mode. It's kind of an inner dialogue. ... And what they think happens is that you do tend to fall into a daydreaming default mode more easily. And this default daydreaming mode is brand new. They didn't know it existed in the brain before, and they're now studying it and trying to figure out how that happens."

Researchers who study brain scans find that as humans age, their processing speed may be a bit slower, and they might miss a beat while first trying to focus on something.

"So one thing they tell you is to focus very, very hard at the beginning of things so that you can sort of get past that moment where sometimes we are more distracted," she says.

Barbara Strauch i i

Barbara Strauch has covered health and medicine at The New York Times since 1994. She was previously an editor at Newsday, where she led a team that won a Pulitzer Prize. Courtesy of Viking Press hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Viking Press
Barbara Strauch

Barbara Strauch has covered health and medicine at The New York Times since 1994. She was previously an editor at Newsday, where she led a team that won a Pulitzer Prize.

Courtesy of Viking Press

On Forgetting

Another common indication of aging is growing more forgetful. But memory, says Strauch, is made up of different components, some of which don't go away.

"As we age, certain parts of our memory remain robust. For instance, our autobiographical stuff ... stays with us, she says. "Other things, like how to ride a bike, how to swing a tennis racket ... habits ... do not go away."

But episodic memory — the memory we have for things in context — tends to falter. For example, forgetting the name of someone you're talking to or drawing a blank when trying to come up with a book title.

"Short-term memory for names gets a little bit dicey along the way," Strauch says. "And the problem with names is not a storage issue. It's a retrieval issue. Those names are not really lost. They're just kind of temporarily misplaced. ... The way that they're stored in our brain — the sound of the name and the information about what that name is — is kind of weak."

She recommends silently reciting the alphabet in your head while trying to come up with a name. Sometimes this mental trick will jog the correct pathways when a name is on the tip of your tongue.

Improvements In Brain Function

But not all is lost in middle age. There are certain cognitive functions that actually improve as a brain grows older. Strauch points to studies that indicate that a sense of well-being peaks — across all occupations and ethnicities — as people reach middle age. In addition, she says, certain studies show that an older brain can solve problems better than a younger brain.

"We think we're sort of the smartest in college or in graduate school, but when we do the tests we find that's not true in many areas, including inductive reasoning," she says. "We are better than we were in our 20s. And that to me is amazing."

In fact, Strauch says, "there is a whole host of areas where they find we improve in middle age over our 20-something selves."

"We are better at getting the gist of arguments," she says. "We are better at recognizing categories. And we're much better at sizing up situations. We're better at things like making financial decisions, which reaches a peak in our 60s. Social expertise — in other words, judging whether someone's a crook or not a crook, improves and peaks in middle age."

In other words, we've been trained to think that aging equals decline — but that's just not true.

"On the contrary," Strauch says. In some of the categories that matter most, "our brains are functioning probably at their best in our new modern middle age."

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