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Aging: The Secret Life of the Middle-Aged Brain

Posted: 04/19/10 04:46 PM ET

Can't come up with the name of that co-worker in the elevator? Don't remember what movie you saw last weekend? Worried about your brain?

By middle age most of us, if we're honest, are a bit concerned about what's going on inside our heads. We worry about getting old; we worry about getting sick. But we really worry about losing our minds. If we can't, once we get to the hardware store, remember why we went there in the first place; if we wander parking lots looking for cars we know we parked somewhere but have no idea where -- does that mean we're taking the first steps toward dementia? Does that mean our brains are on an inexorable slide?

It's true that in middle age, there are some glitches and our brains do slow down a bit. If you think in middle age that you'll swerve to miss that squirrel in the road or master the latest computer system at work as quickly as your average 20 year old, think again.

But as science has looked more deeply into how our brains age the news is good not bad. Using new technology such as brain scanners, and looking at new results from more sophisticated long-term studies of real people as they aged, scientists have found that our view of middle age -- and how our brains age -- has been incomplete and misleading.

In fact, the new research is upending a whole host of myths we've had about middle age in particular and the aging brain in general.

For instance:

1 MYTH ONE: We lose 30 percent of our brain cells as we age.

For many years, even the most eminent neuroscientists thought that millions of our brain cells simply shriveled up and died as we got aged. But new brain scanning studies show that, as long as we're healthy, we actually keep most of our brain cells for as long as we live.

2. MYTH TWO: Our brains stop developing in our 20s.

It's now known that our brain continue to develop, change and adapt. Growth of white matter and brain connections that we gain through years of experience allow us to recognize patterns faster, make better judgments and find unique solutions to problems. Scientist call these traits cognitive expertise and they reach their peak in middle age.

3. MYTH THREE: Midlife crises are inevitable.

Long-term studies now show that people find middle age the most satisfactory time in their lives. In fact, brain changes in midlife make us more optimistic, not less. And recent research shows that those who have emotional upheavals in midlife have, in many cases, had similar emotional distress at other times in their lives.

4. MYTH FOUR: The empty nest syndrome.

More recent studies of real people -- men and women -- find that our lives, and our moods, often improve when the kids leave home.

5. MYTH FIVE: Our brains operate best in our 20s.

In fact, our brains, in most important areas, reach their peak in midlife. We get better in a whole range of areas, including inductive reasoning, vocabulary, judgment, even the ability to get the "gist'' of an argument and find solutions. There is evidence that we can also become more creative as we age.

MYTH SIX: Our brains start to fade away.

Actually, brains in middle age begin to "power up'' not down. In some cases, we learn to use two parts of our brain instead of one to solve problems. And it is those with the highest cognitive abilities who learn to use their brains this way.

MYTH SEVEN: Dementia is inevitable.

On the contrary. We now have enough people living long enough to show that dementia is not inevitable. There are increasing numbers of what are called "pristine agers,'' whose brains remain largely intact well into their 90s.

MYTH EIGHT: There is nothing we can do to improve our brains.

New research shows that middle age is a time when the brain is "on the cusp,'' and that what we do matters, even what we think matters. There is increasing evidence -- not hype but solid evidence -- that shows that such things as exercise, education and even what we eat does make a difference. Since we now know that we do not lose whole swaths of brain cells, there is a full-tilt effort to find out how to keep those brain cells intact.

Those who research the ingredients in red wine, for instance, are racing to put it in a pill. New studies in animals and humans show that new baby brain cells are born in the brain, with something as simple as aerobic exercise.

And those who research how adults learn have found that one way to keep our brains alive and growing is to actively explore ideas -- and people -- that challenge our view of the world.

This can create what Jack Mezirow, professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, has called a "disorienting dilemma'' in our minds that, as another researcher put it, "shakes up the cognitive egg,'' prompting our brain cells to wake up, reconfigure and -- with a little luck -- rejuvenate.