It’s inevitable. You just can’t ignore the fact that you used to run more effortlessly. That you used to acquire new information rapidly. That new data went into a file that was always open (as opposed to the vague middle-age hope that you can get “same day service” on a search for something you know you once knew.) We are all living with the fact that our bodies, and our brains, are slowly moving away from those heady days in our 20s when everything worked perfectly. Or so it seemed.

But an article in the Boston Globe helped me put this perception of the entropic drift towards “less than” into a fresh perspective. Self serving, perhaps, since I am well over 40. But it has a ring of truth. And a definite ring of hopefulness!

Interviewing Barbara Strauch (former deputy science editor at The New York Times and author of The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind), Elizabeth Cooney elicits a number of valuable insights about the middle-aged brain. Strauch starts by articulating what most of us have already noticed: As you age, your brain slows down. You get more easily distracted and your short term memory just isn’t as crisp. This actually starts in your 20s, so that decline is happening for most of your life. “I think we’re all kind of quietly worried. And many of us have watched parents suffer from dementia and we think maybe we’re losing our minds,” says Strauch.

But here’s the good news:

On balance what we have is a trade-off. There are some things we don’t do as well. If you have to learn new information — a new computer system at work — brand new information can take a little longer on average as our brains age. [But] our brains in modern middle age have enormous capacity and are formidable in their powers to get the gist of an argument, to see the big picture. Someone I know who teaches at Columbia says the kids are smart, but they don’t seem to connect the dots. What we have in the middle-age brain is that ability to connect the dots. I’ve had many people tell me, ‘I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but solutions pop into my head.’ It’s that confidence to navigate the world.

But, asks Cooney, is it better or just different?

Long-term studies of the same people over 40 years [showed that] in many areas, including reasoning, our brains actually function better. The same people in their 40s and 50s and beyond actually did better than in their 20s. I think that’s pretty shocking.

No kidding. And just about the best thing I’ve heard in a long time.

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