The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind

Author: Barbara Strauch

Deputy science editor and health and medical science editor of the New York Times and author of The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us about Our Kids

Neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, gerontologists, nutritionists and more are finally talking to each other and proving the middle-aged brain has been vastly underestimated. The baby boom generation enters middle and old age having had access to more education, better healthcare and nutrition, and a cleaner environment, all of which have improved brain health and put them at the peak of their game.

New tools like brain scanners, genetic analysis and long-term studies are proving that middle-age brains reorganize, act and think differently from younger brains. The middle-age brain is calmer, more flexible and better at managing emotions and vast amounts of information. Processing speed may slow down, but the middle-aged neurons become more densely intertwined, integrating both sides of the brain (bilateralization). In using the strength of the frontal cortex or cognitive reserve, the middle-aged brain taps into its library of experience and expertise, or as Strauch calls it “gist,” to power up for a “full-tilt life.” The middle-aged brain is more robust, smarter and positive because of the process of aging itself.

Science now knows that brain cells don’t die with normal aging, but can be ready and able well into old age. Myelin, that fatty white coating on neurons causing them to fire messages, continues to build up into late middle-age. Neural networks and the genes that govern them are a process that adapt and strengthen with deliberate use or practice to change its structure and improve how it works. Strauch says, “what we do changes the architecture of our brains. It’s called neuroplasticity and it’s the underpinning of everything we now know about the brain.”

That lifestyle thing, the what-to-do to be a “successful ager” are discussed in more depth – video games, puzzles, learning a new language or to play a musical instrument; the compensatory tricks that older brains use for more “neural juice.” And, of course, exercise can drive neurogenesis and improve cognitive fitness, as well as physical fitness.

Ms Strauch reassures that the smartest years are just ahead. A fascinating, informative, and well-researched scientific survey, this book is a must-read for all boomers. The bibliography has an extensive index, along with sources and recommended books on aging and the brain by chapter.