Bouncing Thoughts and Sharp Brains

May 4, 2010 at 5:21 am 5 comments

As I go about my work day, my Boomer brain can become easily confounded by the many distractions and interruptions I encounter. I frequently find myself thinking, “What was I going to say?” or “What was I just about to do?” Such symptoms of bouncing thoughts are typical of many individuals as they age, and while the experience can be disconcerting and/or annoying, two recent stories overheard on National Public Radio helped to reassure me that I’m not necessarily in the beginning stages of dementia.

Morning Edition’s anchor, Renee Montagne, profiled a new book by Barbara Strauch, The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind. Ms. Strauch is the health and medical science editor at the New York Times and when she began her research, she hoped to determine what happens to the middle age brain that makes us so forgetful. Her definition of “grown-up” (people roughly between the ages of 40 and 65) closely aligns with the widely accepted notion of Baby Boomers (those individuals currently between the ages of 46-64).

Yes, one common indication of aging is becoming more forgetful; however, memory is comprised of different components and some parts of our memory, for example autobiographical details and habits remain strong throughout middle age. It is episodic memory (remembering things in context such as the name of someone you are talking to) and short-term memory that pose problems. As Ms. Strauch says, “It’s a retrieval issue. Those names are not really lost. They’re just kind of temporarily misplaced.”

While conceding that our brains do decline as we age, Ms. Strauch sites research that suggests that the middle-aged brain actually improves in a number of areas including inductive reasoning, verbal memory, and vocabulary. In addition, as we perform tasks and learn, white matter, which is composed of fat and coats the tails of brain cells, increases and brain signals move faster. In fact, Ms. Strauch says that white matter peaks in middle age and studies have shown across all occupations and ethnicities that as people reach middle age, a sense of well-being also peaks and an older brain can see connections and solve problems better than a younger brain!

Rather than recommending mild mental stimulation to keep your brain healthy, Ms. Strauch says that people may have to work harder than they anticipated. For example, doing crossword puzzles may not be enough anymore because when doing them, you’re retrieving information you already know. She contends that you have to push your brain very hard – make it not comfortable. Some research shows that talking with people who disagree with you is basically good for you since it helps you sharpen your own thinking.

So the next time you become distressed at not remembering a co-worker’s name or where you left you keys, forgive yourself and think about all those areas where we outshine our 20-year-old co-workers: in general we Boomers are better at getting the gist of arguments, better at recognizing categories, better at sizing up situations, better at making financial decisions, and better at social expertise (judging character). And don’t forget to challenge your brain – get out of your comfort zone. The Library has an incredible array of resources to help you do just that!

For more information on current brain research and health you may want to check out these titles:

Brain:The Complete Mind: How it Develops, How it Works, and How to Keep it Sharp by Michael S. Sweeney

Buddha’s Brain:The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love &Wisdom by Rick Hanson

Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Danel G. Amen (book on CD)

Rewire Your Brain:Think Your Way to a Better Life by John B. Arden

The Scientific American Brave New Brain by Judith Horstman

Your Brain: A User’s Guide by Jeffrey Kluger

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. torrancepubliclibrary  |  May 5, 2010 at 3:01 am

    To read an interview with Ms. Strauch appearing in the New York Times, follow this link:

    She reveals more interesting results from brain research!

  • 2. lanky  |  May 13, 2010 at 1:20 am

    Yes, some times I have this sense.Thanks for sharing!

  • 3. Torrance Public Library  |  May 13, 2010 at 5:51 am

    Glad you found the article useful! Ms. Strauch’s research was reassuring to Boomers on our staff and while many of us do practice mental exercise, some of us are heeding her advice and engaging in more challenging activities to keep those brain cells stimulated.

  • 4. daurneloleace  |  May 25, 2010 at 8:18 am

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!


  • 5. daurneloleace  |  June 9, 2010 at 4:02 am

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Christian,Earn Free Vouchers / Cash


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