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Midlife Magnificence – Really?

May '10

I’ve been wending my way through The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain by Barbara Strauch. This very readable book gathers findings of numerous scientific studies into an unexpectedly positive picture of the midlife brain’s capacity.

Regardless of those oh-so-familiar “senior moments”, like when you walk into a room and forget what you came for, or those frustrating name-finding episodes, the author contends, “Long-term studies now provide evidence that despite a misstep now and then, our cognitive abilities continue to grow.” As one example, she points to the work of Laura Carstensen, director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University, who asserts, “I’d have to say from what we know now that the middle-aged brain is downright formidable.”

As I continued reading, I was surprised to learn that 50 is the new 30 – well almost! Strauch details a study by Zebriski, who compared test results of folks who were seventy-four years old sixteen years ago with those in a current group of the same age. She discovered that today’s group did far better on a range of mental tests achieving scores closer to people fifteen years younger in the earlier testing. So actually 50 is the new 35.

To be sure, processing speed slows down with age along with short-term memory (yes, those “senior moments” again), but neuronal expertise is building and with it comes better judgment and even wisdom. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the age of the crone (who personifies wisdom as the third age of the Great Goddess archetype), is fifty-six. Neurology is recapitulating mythology here.

So what if you spend a few extra moments hunting for your glasses when they’re on your head!  Remember, you are much better at sorting out complex patterns; you know what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Since this kind of expertise accumulates over time, you may be unaware you’ve built up these capabilities. But pause for a moment and think back to your twenties. Certainly you can sense that you’re wiser now. I’d love to hear the specific ways you can see your wisdom has increased on the job, or in parenting, or with friends. And if you want to share a silly story about a “senior moment,” please do. As Audrey Hepburn said, “I love people who make me laugh…It’s probably the most important thing in a person.”

Enjoy that formidable brain of yours,

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