Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Brain Heresy? Middle-Aged Brains are Better?

I’ve just reread Barbara Strauch’s book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, and found it fascinating. Of course the real reason I like it is that it gives me hope that my cognitive skills aren't going to hell in a hand-basket right-away.

This book is an excellent myth debunker. That old myth about being born with a fixed # of brain cells and you can’t ever make anymore?  Debunked.

Worried about your cognitive skills on a long skid into geezer-dom? Debunked. For starters, she shows a number of studies that demonstrate that, on the whole, brains are functioning better in middle-age than they do when younger. According to these studies, the middle-aged brain is better at:
  • Vocabulary – how many words you can recognize and find synonyms for
  • Verbal memory – how many words you can remember
  • Spatial orientation – how well you can tell what an object would look like rotated 180 degrees
  • Inductive reasoning - how well you can solve logical problems
Middle-aged folks tend to lose out to younger folks in terms of:
  • Number ability – how quickly you can do math
  • Perceptual speed – how fast you can process input
Wait a minute, what about the “tip-of-the-tongue” (“TOTS”) syndrome?  That embarrassing moment when you see somebody you know walking towards you at a party, but you can’t remember their name? Or what about those misplaced car keys that you spend endless time looking for?

Sorry, that really is happening to you and it ain’t getting better. She explains the problem as a “retrieval, not a storage, problem” which I found strangely helpful.

I also want to emphasize a very clear finding of her research review: “Keep moving and keep your wits.”  That’s a chapter title which really delves into the whole connection between brain health and exercise. The connection is strong.  The breakthrough research came from a study at Columbia University where scientists were able to watch, in real time, the growth of new neurons in mice. She quotes a scientist from that event who said, “To see so clearly, new brain cells that came with exercise, it was impossible to ignore. My colleagues started putting on their sneakers.”

Less clear is the connection between brain super foods, and she spends significant time examining this.

I like her writing. I like her thoroughness. I like her commitment to the literature. And I found a copy in my local library.      

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