[EDITORIAL NOTE: The time window for entries in the "Say Something Nice" exercise has closed, and what a lot of email poured in. I am collating the comments and will send them out by individual email to everyone by sometime tomorrow morning. I hope all of you who participated enjoyed this as much as I have.]
“In midlife,” says UCLA neurologist George Bartzokis, “you’re beginning to maximize the ability to use the entirety of the information in your brain on an every-day, ongoing, second-to-second basis. Biologically, that’s what wisdom is.” [T]
Both the major newsweeklies published science stories last week on age and human brain, and they are crammed with the latest facts and research on how older brains work. Bottom line? Old brains work better than young brains which would shock old Sigmund who said, “About the age of 50, the elasticity of the mental processes on which treatment depends is, as a rule, lacking. Old people are no longer educable.” Not so, Mr. Freud.
Although the Newsweek story relies more on anecdotal information, both its writer and the Time story do good jobs in synthesizing and explaining the research. There is little I can add, so I’m going to quote a lot of it because I want it here on TGB for our future reference to refute general ageist attitudes and age discriminatory employers who think we are past our prime. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Both stories are linked in the preceding paragraph, although they go behind a paid firewall at some point. I’ll use a bracketed [T] for Time and [N] for Newsweek so you know where the information originated and save me those tedious, interruptive citations.]
Let’s start with the physical stuff – the brain itself:
“The most important difference between older brains and younger brains is also the easiest to overlook: older brains have learned more than younger ones. Throughout life, our brains encode thoughts and memories by forming new connections among neurons. The neurons themselves may lose some processing speed with age, but they become ever more richly intertwined.” [N]
“Far from slowly powering down, the brain as it ages begins bringing new cognitive systems on line and cross-indexing existing ones in ways it never did before….you manage information and parse meanings that were entirely beyond you when you were younger.” [T]
“It’s not just the wiring that charges up the brain as we age, it’s the way different regions start pulling together to make the whole organ work better than the sum of its parts…As we age, however, the walls between the [left and right] hemispheres seem to fall, with the two halves working increasingly in tandem. Neuroscientist Roberto Cabeza (great name for a man in his line of work - RB) of Duke University dubs that the HAROLD (hemispheric asymmetry reduction in older adults) model, and judging by his work, the phenomenon is a powerful one.” [T]
Now let’s move on to how these physical changes affect our minds and behavior. A researcher in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has been regularly testing 123 women beginning when they were 21 in 1958:
”On the whole, they found, the women’s highest scores in inductive reasoning occurred from their 40s to their early 60s. Similarly, their…(ability to highlight the better aspects one’s personality and restrain the less attractive ones) and…[the ability to evaluate various contradictory ideas and remain objective) did not peak until their 50s or 60s. There was also an increased tolerance for ambiguity and improved ability to manage relationships.” [T]
“As our aging brains grow wiser and more flexible, they also tend toward greater equanimity…An editor I know at a New York publishing company…in his 60s, and contemplating retirement, when he realized that he had finally matured into his job. Despite a sharp intellect and a passion for excellence, this man had spent much of his career alienating people with brusque, critical comments and a lack of sensitivity. Now, he told me over lunch, he was finally beginning to master interpersonal communication…he morphed from a brilliant but brittle loner into a mentor and a mediator of conflicts.” [N]
Take that, you ageist employers who fire and refuse to hire anyone older that 50.
"It's that talent for reflective thinking that explains the role older adults have always played in the human culture. It's not for nothing that history's firebrands and ideologues are typically young, while it's judges and peacemakers and great theologians tend to be older." [T]
The Newsweek story focuses on refuting the myth of the midlife crisis and the writer, Gene Cohen, who is a physician and researcher, says that what some perceive as a crisis is, in reality, “the start of a thrilling new phase of my life.”
“…I realized that our view of human development in the second half of life was badly outmoded. We tend to think of aging in purely negative terms, and even experts define ‘successful’ aging as the effective management of decay and decline. Rubbish.” [N]
Just what I’ve been saying here for two years, and because that’s what impresses people, I like having my observations supported by folks with letters behind their names. All this throws a big, fat monkey-wrench into every age-discriminatory practice in the land.
But none of this means elders can sit back and rest on our brainy behinds. As with our bodies, it’s a “use it or lose it” proposition and Dr. Cohen repeats what we all know, but don’t always practice:
- Exercise physically
- Exercise mentally
- Pick challenging leisure activities
- Establish strong social networks
That all this research has made it out of lab and into mainstream media means attitudes will begin to change, but it must be regularly repeated over time to make a dent in the ageism and age discrimination that is so powerfully entrenched in American culture.
Nevetheless, this is a start, and young people who dread getting older can now rejoice in knowing that science has finally proved what elders have always known about ourselves: like fine, old wine - we get better with time. Just nobody else, even the great thinkers like Freud, ever believed it before.