Recent research is showing that our brain gains skills as we age – reorganizing itself and using more parts to problem solve and multitask. Barbara Strauch, in her book The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind, says studies are revealing that the brain peaks in middle age somewhere between ages 40 and 68. Good news for my fifty-something brain!
Although the aging brain does lose 45% of the kind of dendrite spines responsible for learning and remembering new things, it doesn’t lose any of the type of dendrite spines linked to core knowledge.
A myelin sheath coats nerve fibers in the brain, insulating and protecting them. Myelin continues to grow into our 60’s. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its functioning and to grow new neurons and synapses, happens from cradle to grave.
The Benefits Of An Older Brain
The elderly brain is less dependent on dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitter involved in any reward/pleasure rush as well as wanting and craving. This means the older brain is less impulsive and less driven to seek immediate gratification.
All of this evidence points to an older brain that is slower, for sure, but also wiser with some enhanced depth and abilities. There’s growing acceptance of the idea of a “cognitive reserve” that builds as we age.
Younger people do score better on standard brain tests in the lab, but the older brain may fare better in real life. It really boils down to a question of what exactly is being measured and what is defined as “better.” While a 20 something year old may be able to find the next letter in a sequence of letters faster, is that really going to help them to be a better CEO of a company, a better partner, or weather life’s challenges successfully?
Many of the long standing, bad news beliefs about what happens to the brain as we age are beginning to be questioned and debunked. The differences may have more to do with generational factors rather than mental decline. It’s beginning to look like a brain that declines with age is becoming almost optional.
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