The upsides of your aging brain

Aging is more a winding path than a downhill slalom. Changes in brain function as well as your outlook on life can influence the journey ahead. If you forget a name or two, take longer to finish the crossword, or find it hard to manage two tasks at once, don't assume you're on the road to dementia. What you're experiencing is age-related changes in the way your brain works. And in many ways it's actually working better. Studies have shown that older people have better judgment, are better at making rational decisions, and are better able to screen out negativity than their juniors.

The brain compensates for a slower processing speed by using more of itself. MRIs taken of a teenager working through a problem show a lot of activity on one side of the prefrontal cortex, the region we use for conscious reasoning. In middle age, the other side of the brain begins to pitch in a little. In seniors, both sides of the brain are sharing the task equally. A host of studies in the last decade have shown that the more mature brain actually has advantages over its younger counterpart. For example, in a study of air traffic controllers and airline pilots, those between ages 50 and 69 took longer than those under 50 to master new equipment, but once they had, they made fewer mistakes using it. (Keep this in mind when you're trying to conquer a new computer program or adapt to a new car!)

At midlife you are probably better at the following:

  • Inductive reasoning. Older people are less likely to rush to judgment and more likely to reach the right conclusion based on the information. This is an enormous help in everyday problem solving, from planning the most efficient way to do your errands to figuring out why the hot water isn't flowing in the kitchen sink.
  • Verbal abilities. In middle age, you continue to expand your vocabulary and hone your ability to express yourself.
  • Spatial reasoning. Remember those quizzes that required you to identify an object that had been turned around? You are likely to score better on them in your 50s and 60s than you did in your teens. And you may be a better driver, too
  • Basic math. You may be better at splitting the check and figuring the tip when you're lunching with friends, simply because you've been doing it for so many years.

For more on embracing aging and living a longer and healthier life, read A Guide to Women's Health: Fifty and Forward from Harvard Medical School.

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