April 23, 2010

Breaking News: Middle-Aged Brains Work Better!

A friend posted a link to an NPR article on Facebook last week and I saved the link because, well, I knew I would never remember where to find it again if I didn't save it. The article is about memory, you see, and how our middle-aged brains aren't nearly as bad as we (and perhaps my younger readers) think they are. The article was called The Surprising Strengths of the Middle-Aged Brain.

I found the article incredibly reassuring. Sure, I never know where my keys are, and if I park anywhere other than my "normal" spot, I worry that I won't find my car again. I keep telling myself that if dementia was the problem, I'd have way more trouble with my memory than that by now.

It was a good 20 years ago - maybe longer - that I grabbed the shopping cart away from the bag boy who was taking groceries out to my car because I had varied from my regular section of the parking lot and suddenly realized I had absolutely no idea where I had parked. Now I go to Walmart where they never take the groceries out for you so I could wander aimlessly in the parking lot for hours and no one would ever notice...but now that there's no bag boy to take my groceries out with me, I can always find my car.

Maybe it's the strength of the middle-aged brain.

A couple of interesting things from the article jumped out at me. One is that it's not a storage issue, but rather a matter of retrieval. For years I haven't made any effort to remember some things that I didn't consider to be brain-storage-worthy. (Things like the name of an acquaintance's 4th husband. Come on, I can't be wasting brain space with the name of a guy who is basically another interim husband, and who I'm not likely to ever see again.)

But now I find out that there's plenty of storage space in there. I just need to pay enough attention to actually commit the name to memory and then cross-reference what I store so I can find it again. They suggest going through the alphabet, which is actually a trick I've always used. It generally works, assuming I was paying enough attention to store the name in the first place.

The other thing in the article that I found interesting is that they have found that cognitive functions actually improve as we get older because we get better at seeing the whole picture. (Note to self: Mom was right again.)

An example they used is this: "Social expertise -- in other words, judging whether someone's a crook or not a crook, improves and peaks in middle age." I wonder if that's really the brain functioning better or if it's experience. Maybe it's a combination, but I would suspect we see the whole picture better because we've been there before. Something triggers a memory and allows us to put it all together, even if a piece or two might be missing. (Although it does say that this skill "peaks in middle age" which I guess explains why so many elderly people seem to fall prey to scams - it's a skill they've lost.)

There was one part of the article I think is downright bad advice, at least for me. Under Memory Exercises (in a sidebar on the left of the NPR article) they suggest this: "If you're trying to remember to take your medication, imagine yourself taking it. This will create a bigger neural footprint in your brain, creating more ways for your brain to remember."

Imagine myself taking it? I don't think so. If I imagine myself taking the medicine, I'm going to think I actually took it. Forget that. (No pun intended.) Get a pillbox with the days of the week. Sure, you'll feel like your grandmother, but you'll always know whether or not you've taken your calcium.

Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained by a righteous life. ~ Proverbs 16:31
The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old. ~ Proverbs 20:29


  1. i'm with you on the pillbox idea. NOT
    going to imagine myself taking medication.

  2. "Did I take those this morning, or was it yesterday, or have I just been imagining myself taking them for the last 2 weeks?"

    I'd never be able to keep track of what I have or haven't taken without the days of the week compartments!

  3. Wow, this is so interesting! It definitely is a case of "use it or lose it". I was reading this morning that book sales are going down because people don't read book anymore. Everything is done electronically. But I think we lose a part of our cognitive powers when we do everything on the computer.

    By the way, you have a fabulous blog!



  4. I had to chuckle when I began reading your post as my husband and I were talking about this NPR article this morning! I have lately referred to my brain as having an "overly full Rolodex" or having to "go into deep storage to retrieve a file." I was doing a happy dance when I heard about the article - it made me feel ten years younger! ;-D

  5. The friend who posted the NPR link was from high school - funny how we're so excited about middle-aged articles now.

    Jo, it's so sad to think books are falling by the wayside. I hope they make a comeback!

  6. Love the post! Just today, when I left work.... couldn't find my car!! (And I'm 36.) :) Stopping by from LBS.