A new book by Barbara Strauch, a former deputy science editor at The New York Times and a reporter in Boston during the 1980s, is “The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind.’’
Q. You say there’s actually good news about the middle-age brain — whose modern incarnation is generally considered to span age 40 to 70. But isn’t the bad news overwhelming?
A. In middle age our brains slow down. Our processing speed does decline from our 20s on. They used to think that was such a decline that the whole brain was on a downward slope. We get more distracted and we get distracted more easily. Our short-term memory gets a little dicey. I think we’re all kind of quietly worried. And many of us have watched parents suffer from dementia and we think maybe we’re losing our minds.
Q. So what positive things are scientists discovering?
A. On balance what we have is a trade-off. There are some things we don’t do as well. If you have to learn new information — a new computer system at work — brand new information can take a little longer on average as our brains age. [But] our brains in modern middle age have enormous capacity and are formidable in their powers to get the gist of an argument, to see the big picture. Someone I know who teaches at Columbia says the kids are smart, but they don’t seem to connect the dots. What we have in the middle-age brain is that ability to connect the dots. I’ve had many people tell me, ‘I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but solutions pop into my head.’ It’s that confidence to navigate the world.
Q. Do our brains get better, or just different?
A. Long-term studies of the same people over 40 years [showed that] in many areas, including reasoning, our brains actually function better. The same people in their 40s and 50s and beyond actually did better than in their 20s. I think that’s pretty shocking.
Q. Does context matter?
A. If a game relies on speed, the older brain does not do well. If the game is bridge or chess, [using] logic and context, pathways in our brains are built up over years of experience. Older brains do just as well. Air traffic controllers and pilots — there’s no reason for them to retire [at 55]. On the contrary. Very good, experienced brains go out the door. I got a little angry looking at the science, and looking at what are we doing. We have it a bit backward.
Interview was condensed and edited.
Elizabeth Cooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.