Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Good News About Old Brains

"Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it."
~ Albert Einstein

Hail, friends with aging brains, we have good news: As we get older, our skin is not the only thing that wrinkles — our brains get wrinklier, too.

It's true that by age 50, the tips of our tongues are crowded with words that refuse to leap into consciousness, and it's true that certain types of information kick up a fuss when we try to learn them. But such things are mere annoyances when compared with scientific verification that wisdom really does come with age.

In a December 29, 2009 New York Times article titled "How to Train the Aging Brain," Times Health Editor Barbara Strauch made me feel younger immediately when she wrote that, due to increasing lifespans, middle age "now stretches from the 40s to late 60s." I liked this even better: "The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can."

Strauch, whose new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, will be published on April 15, was back again in early February with "Brain Functions that Improve with Age" for a Harvard Business Review blog. She noted, "In areas as diverse as vocabulary and inductive reasoning, our brains function better than they did in our 20s."

A March 1, 2010 NPR story, "The Aging Brain Is Less Quick, But More Shrewd," is the latest addition to the stack of good news about old brains. UCLA brain researcher Gary Smalls says that in middle age, our "neuro-circuits fire more rapidly, as if you're going from dial-up to DSL" — in other words, our complex reasoning skills improve significantly as we age. Even better, constant learning and physical exercise make the whole wrinkly machine work better.

I don't know about you, but I feel smarter already.

"A man only becomes wise when he begins to calculate the approximate depth of his ignorance."
~ Gian Carlo Menotti

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