Relating with the Mid-life Mind

July 9th, 2010

For years the word on brain development in aging adults was not pretty. The idea that your brain was slowly dying, in step with the deterioration we witness in our bodies was the prevailing view. Happily for most of us, enough smart baby boomer scientists started looking deeper and found that in fact, the middle-aged brain, which shapes our thinking from our 40s to our late 60s is in fact still developing and in fact hitting its peak in many areas of cognition and problem solving.

“The single best thing you can do for your brain is to just be around people in a meaningful way. That doesn’t mean just working with people – it means genuine face-to-face interactions. The absence of human interaction is just deadly for the brain.” Lawrence Katz, Phd neurobiology at Duke University

I go downstairs to find my glasses, only to forget when I get there, that I was looking for my glasses. In the midst of setting the table for dinner, I go to find the Dijon mustard and am literally lost in the refrigerator trying to remember what I opened it for in the first place. Let’s not even discuss the fantasy of multi-tasking that used to feel like second nature to me. I can barely stay on track with one thing at a time. I know I am not alone in this, most of my friends report similar frustrations accompanied by a quiet fear that we try to laugh off, but in secret wonder what this means about where we are all headed.

For years the word on brain development in aging adults was not pretty. The idea that your brain was slowly dying, in step with the deterioration we witness in our bodies was the prevailing view. Happily for most of us, enough smart baby boomer scientists started looking deeper and found that in fact, the middle-aged brain, which shapes our thinking from our 40s to our late 60s is in fact still developing and in fact hitting its peak in many areas of cognition and problem solving. Sure, our brain is not quite as fast and agile as it once was, but according to a recently released book by Barbara Strauch, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, we all have reason for optimism.

Recent research on aging brains has made the important distinction of how the adult brain creates a kind of default mode, not unlike the daydreaming space that occupied early childhood. As we age, our brain slips into this inner dialogue more easily and regularly which makes it hard to keep hold of other thoughts. The good news is that distractibility does not equal dementia. It turns out that forgetting your train of thought in mid action or losing your niece’s boyfriend’s name are just part of the territory of aging, but not a predictor of your brain capacity. Whew… and there are ways to work with this new slip of mind.

For me, this is the most optimistic part of the story. What we do to train and develop our mind during this extended mid-life period is foundational to what happens to our minds in our old age. The developing adult brain gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. Through continued use and development of the brain, we can continue to build pathways that help us to recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can. Our intuitive sense about people and our ability to deal with multi-layered complexity is at its peak.

Keeping our brains lively is a perfect task for relationships. Dealing with people who have different points of view is vital training that aging brains need to wake up the synaptic fibers around what we already know. The kiss of death for the aging brain is closing ourselves off from challenging relationships and the sweeping changes around us. Aging brains need to learn how to stretch out of their comfort zone of the well-trodden synaptic connections and challenge our perceptions of the world. Developing relationships with people who rock your world and wake you up to how you are thinking is actually nourishing to your brain.

This news adds a whole new dimension to thinking about my relationship with my teenagers and their friends. I can now take heart in the exasperated moments of bewilderment about their new techno world and can see that our lively disagreements are actually keeping me sharp. The same, I guess holds true for the ongoing debates with my husband. After all these years, I suppose I am content now, that I never got him to agree with me.

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