I bought my first pair of reading glasses a couple of weeks ago. Red. I think they are kinda fun and funky. While, amazingly, I do not have any gray hair yet (just had to throw that in), the half century mark is looming not too far ahead for me. The good news is that it is not all down hill and doom and gloom for my brain from here.
Recent research is showing that our brain gains skills as we age - reorganizing itself and using more parts to problem solve and multitask. Barbara Strauch, in her book The Grown Up Brain , says studies are revealing that the brain peaks in middle age somewhere between ages 40 and 68. Yipee!
While the aging brain does lose 45% of the kind of dendrite spines responsible for learning and remembering new things (Where in blue blazes did I put my keys?), it does not loose any of the other kind of dendrite spines that are linked to core knowledge.
A myelin sheath coats nerve fibers in the brain, insulating and protecting them. Myelin continues to grow into our 60’s. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its functioning and to grow new neurons and synapses, continues throughout life.
The elderly brain is less dopamine dependent. Dopamine is the feel good neurotransmitter involved in the reward/pleasure rush as well as wanting and craving. This means the older brain is less impulsive and less driven to seek immediate gratification. Patience really does come with age. Hallelujah to that one!
All of this points to an older brain that is slower, for sure, but also wiser with some enhanced depth and abilities. There is growing acceptance of the idea of a “cognitive reserve” that builds as we age.
Younger people do score better on standard brain tests in the lab, but the older brain may fare better in real life. It really boils down to what exactly is being measured and what is defined as “better.” While a 20 something year old may be able to find the next letter in a sequence of letters faster, is that really going to help them to be a better CEO of a company?
Some of the long standing, bad news beliefs about what happens to the brain as we age are beginning to be questioned and debunked. A lot of the differences may have more to do with generational factors rather than mental decline. It is beginning to look like a brain that declines with age is becoming almost optional.