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The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain

Barbara Strauch, the Health and Science Editor for the New York Times, was a guest on NPR’s radio program Fresh Air with Terry Gross last week to discuss the topic of the aging brain and promote her book The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind. During the interview Barbara discussed recent brain research and how the paradigm of what we thought we knew about the brain is continually changing. Here are the book highlights:

  • It is now believed that our brains shrink by approximately two percent every ten years due to brain branches that naturally come off our brain cells as they age
  • There is also some natural decline in our neurotransmitters (such as dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for helping us become alert) as we age
  • The old scientific belief that we lose 30 percent of our brain cells as we age has now been debunked… if we stay brain healthy as we age, we have the opportunity to keep our brain cells
  • The younger brain is better at remembering lists of ‘things’, but the aging brain is better at adding context to ‘things’ and remembering categories
  • We get better at inductive reasoning and engaging in meaningful debates as we age
  • As we age, it is believed we also have a better understanding of how the world works
  • When we are younger we typically only use one side of our brain to remember something or to learn something new
  • As we age, through bilaterization, people begin to use both sides of their brain to perform tasks
  • Physical exercise is one of the best things we can do for the aging brain. Exercise helps maintain good oxygen levels in the brain and provides the brain with a steady flow of blood

So what does all this mean? What is exciting is the reported scientific paradigm that we have the opportunity to keep our brain cells as we age. This has led to more of an emphasis on discovering ways of keeping these cells active and healthy (such as encouraging healthy habits, new drug treatments, and science-based brain training).

Another important part of this paradigm shift that Barbara sees is that it’s changing the negative stigma associated with the aging brain. The hope is that age discrimination in the work place will lessen as people realize that having an aging workforce could actually be beneficial.

If you would like to hear the entire interview with Barbara Strauch, it can be found on NPR’s website here.

If you are interested in picking up Barbara Strauch’s new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind, it’s available on Amazon.