Brain peaks in middle age

MYTH BUSTER: Science writer Barbara Strauch recommends disagreement to stimulate the brain.
MYTH BUSTER: Science writer Barbara Strauch recommends disagreement to stimulate the brain.

Over 40 and always forgetting names and losing car keys? Don't fret, says a leading science writer – it's only in middle age that your brain hits its peak.

She'd be shuttling to and from airports for publicity engagements for her 2004 book on teenagers' brains, when the middle-aged publicist, or perhaps the taxi driver, would turn to American science writer Barbara Strauch and say: "Hey, you should write about my brain – I'm getting worried about it. I can't remember anything..."

The funny thing, says Strauch, was that: "I couldn't remember anything either. I started wondering what was going wrong."

Secrets of the Grown-Up Brain by Barbara Strauch (Black Inc., $33).
Secrets of the Grown-Up Brain by Barbara Strauch (Black Inc., $33).

As health and medical science editor at the New York Times, Strauch was well placed to see what scientists had to say about her growing tendency to misplace names, or wander into a room, then wonder why she was there. But when she looked at the latest research she found the truth was nowhere as bad as she'd feared.

Strauch explains that brains actually get better at lots of things with age.

"This myth that we were the smartest we will ever be in college is not true. In this middle-age span we are better at things like getting the gist of an argument, making financial decisions, getting the big picture, connecting the dots."

So Strauch wrote a book about it, Secrets of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind, and she'll be talking about it this Friday, as part of the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival.

While it's hardly new to notice that sometimes wisdom comes with age, Strauch says new scanning technologies that let us see what individual bits of the brain are up to, as well as results from longitudinal studies into cognition that have been running since the 1950s, bring new rigour to the subject, and have debunked misconceptions.

"Another of the myths that neuroscientists believed for many years from studying people at autopsy, was that we lost about 30% of our brain cells as we aged. We now know that's not true. We keep most of our brain cells. We lose some brain branches and some chemicals decline, and there can be shrinkage, but it's relatively minor in the normal healthy brain."

There are things about the brain, says Strauch, that no one had realised were happening. Brain is mainly composed of grey matter (the neuronal cells that do our thinking and remembering) and white matter (basically bundles of nerve fibres interconnecting the grey matter). Those fibres are insulated with a fatty substance called myelin. The more myelin you have, the more accurately and quickly the signals can travel.

It is only recently, says Strauch, that neuroscientists concluded that the myelin insulation process continues "well into our middle age – perhaps our 60s and perhaps beyond".

Thus, by the time we reach middle age, says Strauch, we have these "great connected brains" that can easily see patterns and connections and solve problems, and perhaps see the bigger picture.

"I remember when I was young racing through the British Museum. But when I visit it now, I want to slow down and figure out, what is civilisation, and what are we?"

Strauch's book is focused on those lucky enough to have a normal, healthy brain, and isn't denying that Alzheimers, strokes and other insults to the brain become more common with advanced age. Yet modern lifestyles and healthcare mean the number of healthy people in their 60s and beyond with these wonderful super-connected brains is exploding.

This is a pop science book, so naturally Strauch offers advice on how to improve the odds of your brain lasting the distance – and there are few surprises. Exercise works. Antioxidant "superfoods" like blueberries and expensive supplements such as the red-wine chemical resveratrol quite probably don't. Diabetes, obesity, heart disease and depression are disaster, so avoid them. Education is good. More education is even better.

And if you're already middle-aged and want to keep the brain nimble, go find someone you disagree with, says Strauch.

"People say learn Italian, walk on a different side of the road to go to work, use a fork in the other hand. That's all good, but the most intriguing suggestion [I've heard] is that you deliberately challenge your view of the world. Talk to people you totally disagree with.

"Confronting things you disagree with may not make you change your mind, but it will perhaps give you a view that is more satisfying to the middle-aged brain."

Secrets of the Grown-Up Brain by Barbara Strauch (Black Inc., $33). See

Sunday Star Times