Older and Wiser: Why Your Brain Has Never Been Better

Text by Naomi Shulman

Last spring, I turned the big four-oh and opted for my own version of a midlife crisis: I decided to take flute lessons. 

The teacher said, "You're brave! Most of my new students are fourth graders."

Well, of course they were. My resolve dampened. Once upon a time I was sharp as a tack, but now I feel more like a rubber ball, bouncing haphazardly from thought to thought. 

In college, when my mind was young and plastic, I soaked up Foucault and Derrida. Yet I certainly made some dumb moves after class. 

How is it that my settled 40-year-old self is stupider than the kid who dated all the wrong guys? It doesn't seem fair that I've gained my dignity but lost a third of my brain cells.

Why Brains Are Like Trees
Turns out it's not that simple, according to Barbara Strauch, deputy science editor at The New York Times and author of the heartening recent book "The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain." First of all, she says, "Scientists used to think we lost 30 percent of our brain cells as we age, but now they know that's not true." 

The book debunks other myths about our aging brains; namely, that we use less of them as we get older, and that cognitively it all goes downhill after our twenties. In some ways, she adds, we actually become better learners after 40, even if it gets harder for us to name all the world capitals.

Our brains are like trees, Strauch told me, with new information paths that branch out as we learn. 

At first our trees are bushy with dendrites, little filaments that extend from our neurons to receive new knowledge from other brain cells. As we get older, those dendrites wither if we don't use them, and it gets harder to grow new ones. 

However, "it's only when we get older that we start to really connect the dots," Strauch says. "Humans and animals do better in situations when they've seen patterns before. At midlife, your brain has seen a lot of patterns. You're more creative. You get arguments better and have more social expertise."

Reaching the Heights
According to the Seattle Longitudinal Study, one of the longest psychological studies of how people change through adulthood, in middle age we reach the height of our abilities in inductive reasoning, spatial orientation, vocabulary, and verbal memory. Of the higher functions researchers studied, the only two that began to decline were perceptual speed and numerical ability. 

So, yes, I'm slower than I was as an undergrad, but somehow smarter.

Some scientists suspect we get better at complex reasoning in our forties and fifties because that's when our brain's white matter peaks. I called George Bartzokis, M.D., who studies age-related dementia at UCLA, to see if he could explain this in terms my aging brain could understand. 

"Think of your brain as the Internet," he says. "Half consists of the computer, or the gray matter. The other half is what we call white matter. It's made up of axons, or wires, which take information away from the neurons, and myelin, which is like the insulation around the wires." 

I had a foggy recollection of biology class, circa 1985. Myelin -- the fatty white stuff? It helps increase transmission from one cell body to another, right? "Yes!" cheered Bartzokis. (Strauch reports that some studies indicate that the facts we've accumulated don't get lost; they simply fall between the cushions like peanuts, and we have to work to dig them out.)

But... where were we? Oh, yes, Bartzokis's Internet analogy: "Think of myelin as bandwidth -- it increases the speed of the signal, " he says. "As we age, we myelinate more, so faster and bigger circuits come online." 

Thus, we can integrate new information with embedded knowledge more quickly at 40 than at 20. We make associations more efficiently, seeing how the things we're learning relate to what we already know.

I'd thought wisdom was borne purely of life experience, but Bartzokis explained that's only part of the equation. Judgment and inhibition are housed in the prefrontal cortex, which doesn't finish developing until we're 45, and the parietal lobes, which aren't done until we're 50. When we hit middle age, our brains not only have the greatest store of experience, but also the quickest access to all those associations. 

"When you were 20," Bartzokis asked, "did you have better impulse control than you do now?" I thought back to those college boyfriends. Um, no. "Of course not! Younger people do stupid things before they think," Bartzokis said. "They're not able to make instantaneous correct decisions. They're less wise."

Learning Through Mistakes
It's an old saw that we learn from our mistakes, but neurochemistry backs it up. "Just the speed of ideas doesn't lead to better decisions," says Jonah Lehrer, the (maddeningly young) author of "How We Decide" and contributor to NPR's Radiolab. "A large body of work suggests that the most effective way to learn is by making mistakes." 

He cited one study in which monkeys heard a bell ring and received apple juice, which caused their brains to release a pleasurable squirt of dopamine, the chemical of motivation, reward, and reinforcement. The monkeys learned to expect juice when they heard the bell, so their dopamine neurons would fire away. But when it rang and the juice was withheld, those neurons stopped firing. 

This is known, in behavioral-psych parlance, as a prediction error: The monkeys' brains experienced "error-related negativity," an electrophysiological signal that's the brain's version of Whoops! 

"Enough prediction errors make the neurons smart at figuring out when the juice will arrive," Lehrer explains. When we recognize a mistake, our brain takes care not to repeat it. That's what we call smarter, wiser behavior.

Fortunately, researchers say there are measures we can take to help our slower but wiser brains recall what we saw on "Nova" last night. And guess what? None of it is exactly brain surgery.

9 Ways to Keep Your Brain Young (but Still Wise)
Move it. Bartzokis was adamant: "Don't be a couch potato! When you exercise vigorously, you give a signal to the brain to repair itself." Research shows that exercise increases brain volume and cognitive scores, and in grown-up brains produces some baby neurons in the hippocampus, where memories are formed.

Shake it up. "If you always watch Fox News, turn to MSNBC. Talk to people who are different," Strauch says. "You don't have to change your mind, but you have to open it up, wake up the synapses a little bit." Doing so forces you to create new dendrites, which can lead to new, richer associations and fuller understanding. You can even try brushing your teeth with the opposite hand -- anything to subvert routine.

Eat brain food. Sprinkle blueberries on your cereal; drink red wine with dinner; take the dark chocolate dessert. All are rich in antioxidants, which prevent free-radical damage to the body's tissues (including those in your brain). It's also important to get a balance of healthy proteins (which contain amino acids that help the brain manufacture neurotransmitters) along with complex carbs (which help the body produce the energy for mental activity).

Take a nap. A 2003 Harvard study showed that a 60- to 90-minute nap, including both slow-wave and REM sleep stages, boosted learning retention as much as a full eight hours of sleep.

Talk to somebody. A longitudinal study in Taiwan showed that adults with social activity in their lives failed significantly fewer cognitive tasks than those without. Another study focusing on Miami neighborhoods showed that older people who had porches had higher cognitive function than people who didn't, presumably because of the increased social interaction. Socializing, Strauch says, requires us to perform such complex tasks as putting names with faces and remembering personal information.

Think back-to-school. Pull out your old student tricks. Taking notes -- physically writing things down -- can help you retain information better than listening alone. Repeating something out loud reinforces knowledge, too, says biologist John Medina, Ph.D., author of "Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School."

Relax. Yes, any challenge to the brain will put you temporarily off your game. But chronic stress increases levels of the hormone cortisol, Bartzokis warns, which will cause the brain to stop everything but looking for ways to flee saber-toothed tigers. Cortisol is also bad news for the memory-making hippocampus. So chill! Tap that middle-aged wisdom of yours and tell yourself it's okay if you don't master it all overnight.

Try smart pills. Eating a balanced diet is optimal for mind and body, of course. But for a brain-boosting supplement, consider fish oil: It contains omega-3s, which have been shown to improve memory as well as protect against high cholesterol and inflammation. Antioxidant vitamins such as C, E, and beta-carotene help neutralize free radicals and boost the brain's supply of oxygen. B vitamins, namely B6, B12, and folic acid, help red blood cells oxygenate the body (and the brain); they may also protect against homocysteine, an amino acid that damages nerve cells. Finally, studies suggest that some herbs -- remember ginseng root and ginkgo biloba? -- have cognition-enhancing effects.

Give your brain a workout. Yes, our memory for facts gets flabbier -- but we can tone things up with a little functional fitness. Try these fun brain games from puzzle designer Chris Maslanka and engineer David Owen, authors of "Neurobics: Create Your Own Brain-Training Program."

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