Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Our Grown-Up Brains

I've been reading Barbara Strauch's The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind. This book makes me feel much better about my brain.

Sure, I sometimes wander around the house, going to a room, wondering why I came, going back to the other room, remembering why I was headed to that room, going back, forgetting. Like many a middle-aged person, once I remember, I repeat a trigger phrase as I head back to the other room: "Credit card. Credit card. Credit card." Sometimes, even after doing that, I can still forget if my attention is distracted for 20 seconds.

Good news: That's normal behavior and doesn't mean I'm doomed to Alzheimer's disease. In fact, even as we lose some of our short term memory, our brains are processing the larger pictures better, so we process information faster and come up with solutions that are more elegant. We manage our emotions better.

I've spent years expecting a mid-life crisis of some sort, and this book shows that we aren't even likely to have that experience. In fact, the studies that proposed that humans go through a mid-life crisis were done with very small sample groups--in one case study, only 40 men, some of them selected by the author of the study.

Even if we're not as doomed as we think we are, there are some things we can do to improve brain health. Before you rush right out and buy that crossword puzzle book or the latest nutritional supplement, consider that the evidence is most clear about the benefits of exercise (less clear about crossword puzzles--you probably need something a bit more challenging, like learning a new language--or nutrition). What's good for your heart is good for your brain. So, while stretching, flexibility, and strength training might be beneficial in other ways, if you really want to protect your brain, you need to get your heart pumping.

Here's a quote for those of you who despair as you think of all the ways you've already let your brain down: "The brain is an organ. It is tissue that is changing all the time, and it is regulated by our environment. Our brains are affected by what we do" (quote from researcher Fred Gage on page 134).

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