Fresh Air Interviews: Writer Barbara Strauch In middle age, most of us get forgetful and easily distracted. But new research finds that our minds improve in some ways as we age: We're better at seeing the big picture and comprehending complexity. Writer Barbara Strauch details how the middle-aged brain grows and changes in The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.

The Surprising Strengths Of The Middle-Aged Brain

The Surprising Strengths Of The Middle-Aged Brain

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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 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

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Courtesy of Viking Press

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."

Excerpt: 'The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain'

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain
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

The Best Brains of Our Lives

A Bit Slower, but So Much Better

Here's a short quiz. Look at the following list:

January February March April January February March May

January February March June January February March --

What would the next word be?

Got it? Now, how about this one:

January February Wednesday March April Wednesday May June

Wednesday July August Wednesday --

What would the next word be?

Now try it with numbers. Look at this series:

1 4 3 2 5 4 3 6 5

What would the next number be?

Did you get them all?

These are examples of questions that measure basic logic and reasoning. The answers are, in order, July, September, and, for the number sequence the next number would be 4 (and then 76. The series goes like this: 1- 43 2- 54 3- 65 4- 76 and so on). Such problems test our abilities to recognize patterns and are routinely used by scientists to see how our cognitive -- or thinking -- processes are holding up. And if you're middle-aged and have figured out all of them, you can be proud -- your brain is humming along just fine. Indeed, despite long-held beliefs to the contrary, there's mounting evidence that at middle age we may be smarter than we were in our twenties.

How can that be? How can we possibly be smarter and be putting the bananas in the laundry basket? Smarter and still unable, once we get to the hardware store, to remember why we went there in the first place? Smarter and,despite our best efforts to concentrate on one thing at a time, finding our brains bouncing about like billiard balls?

To begin to understand how that might be, there is no better person to start with than Sherry Willis. A psychologist at Pennsylvania State University, Willis and her husband, K. Warner Schaie, run one of the longest, largest, and most respected life-span studies, the Seattle

Longitudinal Study, which was started in 1956 and has systematically tracked the mental prowess of six thousand people for more than forty years. The study's participants, chosen at random from a large health-maintenance organization in Seattle, are all healthy adults, evenly divided between men and women with varying occupations and between the ages of twenty and ninety. Every seven years, the Penn State team retests participants to find out how they are doing.

What's important about this study is that it's longitudinal, which means it studies the same people over time. For many years, researchers had information from only cross-sectional human life-span studies, which track different people across time looking for patterns. Most longitudinal studies, considered the gold standard for any scientific analysis, were not begun until the 1950s and are only now yielding solid information. And they show that we've been wildly misguided about our brains.

For instance, the first big results from the Seattle study, released just a few years ago, found that study participants functioned better on cognitive tests in middle age, on average, than they did at any other time they were tested.

The abilities that Willis and her colleagues measure include vocabulary -- how many words you can recognize and find synonyms for; verbal memory -- how many words you can remember; number ability -- how quickly you can do multiplication, division, subtraction, and addition; spatial orientation -- how well you can tell what an object would look like rotated 180 degrees; perceptual speed -- how fast you can push a button when you see a green arrow; and inductive reasoning -- how well you can solve logical problems similar to those mentioned above. While not perfect, the tests are a fair indicator of how well we do in certain everyday tasks, from deciphering an insurance form to planning a wedding.

And what the researchers found is astounding. During the span of time that constitutes the modern middle age -- roughly age forty through the sixties -- the people in the study did better on tests of the most important and complex cognitive skills than the same group of people had when they were in their twenties. In four out of six of the categories tested -- vocabulary, verbal memory, spatial orientation, and, perhaps most heartening of all, inductive reasoning -- people performed best, on average, between the ages of forty to sixty- five.

"The highest level of functioning in four of the six mental abilities considered occurs in midlife," Willis reports in her book Life in the Middle, "for both men and women, peak performance . . . is reached in middle age.

"Contrary to stereotypical views of intelligence and the naive theories of many educated laypersons, young adulthood is not the developmental period of peak cognitive functioning for many of the higher order cognitive abilities. For four of the six abilities studied middle-aged individuals are functioning at a higher level than they did at age 25."

When I first learned of this, I was surprised. After researching the science on the adolescent brain, I knew that our brains continue to change and improve up to age twenty-five. Many scientists left it at that, believing that while our brains underwent large-scale renovations through our teens, that was about it. I, too, thought that as the brain entered middle age, it was solidified and staid, at best -- and, more likely, if it was changing in any big way, was headed downhill.

After speaking with Willis one afternoon, I went out to dinner with friends and couldn't resist talking about what was still whirring in my head. "Did you know," I asked the middle- aged group over pasta and wine, "that our brains are better -- better -- than they were in our twenties?"

The reaction was swift.

"You're crazy," said one of my dinner companions, Bill, fifty-two, a civil engineer who owns his own consulting firm. "That's simply not true. My brain is simply not as good as it was in my twenties, not even close. It's not as fast; it's harder to solve really hard problems. Come on, if I tried to go to Stanford engineering school today, I would be toast. TOAST!"

Bill is not wrong. Our brains do slow down by certain measures. We can be more easily distracted and, at times, find it more taxing to tackle difficult new problems, not to mention our inability to remember why we went down to the basement.

Bill does not have to go to school anymore, but even in his day- to-day work he compares his current brain to his younger brain and sees only its shortcomings. However, Bill is not seeing that his brain is far more talented than he gives it credit for. If you look at the data from the Willis research, the scores for those four crucial areas -- logic, vocabulary, verbal memory, and spatial skills -- are on a higher plane in middle age than the scores for the same skills ever were when those in her study were in their twenties. (There are also some interesting gender gaps. Top performance was reached a bit earlier on average for men, who peaked in their late fifties. Men also tended to hold on to processing speed a bit longer and do better overall with spatial tests. Women, on the other hand, consistently did better than men on verbal memory and vocabulary and their scores kept climbing later into their sixties.)

From The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain by Barbara Strauch. Copyright 2010 by Barbara Strauch. Reprinted by permission of Viking Press. All rights reserved.