Standing in my cellar I look around me, trying to jog my memory. I’ve come downstairs to get something. The question is, what? I stare at the shelves where I store big pots and pans. Was it the pasta dish? My mind is suddenly, inexplicably, blank.
I stare at my hands. Maybe if I look long enough, I’ll get a picture in my mind, a clue as to what I came downstairs to put into those hands.
This is maddening. I consider going upstairs to survey the scene to figure out what’s missing, like one of those children’s puzzles where, after looking at a picture, you then look at a second picture and try to find what’s been removed from the first one.
But I don’t want to go back upstairs. That’s ridiculous. I stare at the shelves again. Lightbulbs? Nothing. I give up and walk back upstairs. I scan the kitchen. And then I see it – the empty paper towel holder. Agghh!
I turn and go downstairs again, this time repeating to myself over and over: ‘Paper towels, paper towels, paper towels, paper towels.’
We all worry about getting old. We all worry about getting sick. But we really worry about losing our minds. Are our brains on an inevitable downward slide?
As I reached middle age I thought that this, sadly, was the case.
But then I noticed something else. At work, at home, with friends, I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing. These were people, also in the thick of middle age, who, despite not remembering the name of the restaurant they’d just eaten in or the book they just read, were also structuring complex deals between oil companies on different continents, then coming home to cook complicated recipes.
These were people who could simultaneously write an email to a daughter who was unhappy at university, sort paperwork and participate in a conference call with colleagues.
Over the years, we’ve been trained to think the body and the brain age in tandem. Certain bodily changes are undeniable. Despite my best efforts – regular runs, laps at the pool, yoga – I’m 20lb heavier than I ever was before.
I need glasses that correct for three different distances – reading, driving, and writing on a computer. And as we watch our bodies ageing we assume there’s equivalent decay inside our heads. It’s not hard to imagine our brain cells drying up, or disappearing altogether, too.
But what’s actually happening turns out to be much more complicated. Indeed researchers – from sociologists and psychologists to neuroscientists – have discovered that middle-aged brains do not necessarily act like the rest of our bodies at all.
It’s true, parts of our memory wane. Researchers meticulously tracking the brain as it ages in humans and animals found distinct declines, for instance, in the brain chemicals that keep us alert and on the move.
As a result some brain functions simply do not keep up. If you think, at 55, that you’ll be able to keep pace in all areas with an average 25-year-old – to swerve as quickly to avoid a squirrel in the road or adjust as quickly to yet another new computer system at work – think again.
But at the same time, our ability to make accurate judgments about people, about jobs, about finances – about the world around us – grows stronger. Our brains build up patterns of connections, interwoven layers of knowledge that allow us to instantly recognise similarities of situations and see solutions.
There’s also evidence that as a group we’re considerably smarter than any similarly aged groups that went before us. Indeed, even the long-held view that our brains lose millions of brain cells through the years has now been discounted.
Using brain scanners and watching the brains of real people ageing in real time, researchers have shown that brain cells do not disappear in large numbers with the normal ageing process.
Most stick around for the long haul and, given half a chance, can be there intact well into our 80s and beyond.
There are recent findings, too, that show the middle-aged brain – rather than giving up and giving in – adapts, powering up to use more of itself to solve problems.
Furthermore, around middle age, we start growing happier, and the cause may be ageing itself. In particularly hard or stressful moments it might not seem likely, but the positive wins over the negative in how we see the world, in part because we start to use our brains differently.
So let’s look more closely at the surprising talents of the middle-aged brain.
TWICE AS POWERFUL
Perhaps it’s out of a sense of panic but sometime in middle age we begin to develop the ability for bilateralisation – when faced with a perplexing problem, to use both sides of our brain instead of one.
One of the first scientists to spot this was Dr Cheryl Grady, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto. In the early Nineties she observed the ageing brain with positron emission tomography (PET) scans. These measure changes in blood flow as brain regions activate, and Grady wanted to find out if an older brain acted in the same way as a younger one in routine tasks such as matching faces.
She assumed they’d be much worse and muster fewer brain cells. But to her surprise, the older adults performed just as well as the younger ones, and they consistently used more of their brains, not less. Older adults used their brains in a new way. They tapped into the same brain circuits as the younger adults, but they also recruited an additional region – their powerful frontal cortex, the front of the brain which is responsible for problem solving.
We have two frontal cortex, one on each side of the brain (known as hemispheres). Just a few years after Dr Grady’s discovery, another study found that while young people switched between sides, older adults used them both at once.
An intriguing aspect of this two-brain phenomenon is that it’s not the weakest brains that do this but the most capable who resort to this trick. It’s as if the best and the brightest older brains, accustomed to being held in the highest esteem, simply refuse to give in. As Grady herself concludes: ‘The higher the education, the more likely the older adult is to recruit frontal regions, resulting in better memory performance.’