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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.

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/brandoncwarren/

8 Comments

  1. Tony Piparo Reply

    Now if I could only remember what you wrote so I could comment on it. Oh well, maybe it will come to me intime.

  2. Hi Debbie,
    This couldn't have been posted at a better time. I'll be 40 soon and while I'm not freaked out about the milestone — it does come with a bit more pondering and thinking about where I've been and what's next.

    Like all your posts, I love the way you bring together research with a keen eye for the bigger picture. (I really think humanity is entering into more of a consilience-centered frame of mind as opposed single pockets of knowledge.)

    Anyhoo, this was great. Hey, yay for no gray yet (me neither!). My grandpops never really grayed, so I'm angling for gramp's genes! 😉

    I also really like your avatar, Debbie. What a smile!
    Thanks for another awesome post, soul sister.
    See you soon!
    ~xo

  3. Hamps this is good educational stuff. I think that you should stop 'hiding' behind the blog and spread the word a little more formerly – Classes? Publication? T-shirts? (LOL!)

    I also a sense a redefinition in your positivity……..

    That I like !

  4. Debbie Hampton Reply

    I love the idea of T-shirts! 🙂 I do see my spreading the word and sharing my journey as my life's purpose. Who would have ever thought that I would find it in trying to kill myself and in the challenge to recover some sense of normalcy? Life is funny that way. Teaches me all the more to never judge what happens. Just let it unfold and work with it.

  5. Debbie Hampton Reply

    Lori, here's to good genes! My maternal grandmother never really went fully gray either. Although, I do kinda think a head full gray hair can be sassy. It is all in the tude.

    At 40 you are just a babe….haven't even hit your prime. Like it says, a declining brain is becoming optional. I know you have to work at it harder than most, but there are broader benefits in all the stuff you do. The best is yet to come!

  6. While the aging brain does lose 45% of the kind of dendrite spines responsible for learning and remembering new things, it does not loose any of the other kind of dendrite spines that are linked to core knowledge.

    you spelled Loose wrong, it should be spelled lose.
    FYI…

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