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The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind Paperback – February 22, 2011
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Along with bulging waistlines and graying hair, declining mental faculties have long been seen as an inevitable drawback of middle age. When New York Times science editor Strauch first began research for this follow-up to The Primal Teen (2004), her book on adolescent intelligence, faltering midlife brain fitness was considered a given. To her pleasant surprise, her forays into contemporary neuroscience revealed a reassuring discovery. Aside from usual short-term memory lapses of forgetting names and mislaying keys, the middle-aged brain is more vigorous, organized, and flexible than has been previously believed. In 11 easily digested chapters, Strauch overviews the latest findings of high-tech brain scans and psychological testing that demonstrate cognitive expertise reaching its peak in middle age. Although distractions and oversights may more easily prey on the mind, the continued growth of myelin (or white matter) increases problem-solving skills, pattern recognition, and even wisdom. Supplemented by a section on keeping one’s brain in top shape, Strauch’s work proffers a welcome dose of optimism to every aging baby boomer. --Carl Hays --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Praise for The Primal Teen by Barbara Strauch
"Provocative...A contender for every parent's reading list."
"Upends the longstanding belief that the teenage brain is largely complete, concluding instead that it is undergoing dramatic changes that can help explain what appears to be a gap between intelligence and judgement."
-The Hartford Courant
"This is such a smart book...Barbara Strauch acts as a world-class guide to a mysterious place, taking us on a journey through the teenage brain and making sense of the scenery. In turns funny, curious, explanatory, vivid, she does an absolutely compelling job of helping us to understand our children-and ourselves."
-Deborah Blum, author of Love at GoonPark: Hanny Harlow and the Science of Affection
"Through interviews with parents, physicians, neuroscientists, and teens, Strauch has compiled impressive insights about the nature of being a teen or the parent of one."
"Entertaining as well as informative."
"An intriguing look at cutting-edge studies that now tell us the brain is not finished growing in a child's early years but continues into the teens."
-The Plain Dealer
"Can knowing more about the teenager's brain help us to understand the teenager's behavior? Can an account of the neuroscience of adolescence be lively and readable? Barbara Strauch provides convincing evidence that the answer to both questions is yes."
-Judith Rich Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do
"Readers will be struck by the wonderfully candid comments by those interviewed as well as Strauch's insightful narrative."
"Strauch's well-researched book explains studies that were impossible, without such advanced technology as the MRI in clear, compassionate, layperson's language...A parents' must-read."
"Strauch [has]...a light, anecdotal style and a sense of humor. This is a very useful book...[These] are conclusions parents will want to consider carefull."
-The Washington Post Book World
"Strauch tackles [loaded questions] with all the scientific instruments at her disposal...the latest findings neurological, biochemical, and psychological, with an illuminating dose of anecdote thrown in."
-The New Scientist
"An important book...Strauch writes masterfully, making scientific research understandable to lay readers."
-Library Journal (starred)
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Barbara Strauch has written a fascinating and readable book about how our minds age, and how we get better as we get older, a lot older. If you are in your fifties and feel that you know far more about what you are doing now, than you did twenty or even ten years ago, science bears you out. According to The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, we get smarter meaning that our judgment improves, our ability to see the big picture improves, our ability to read people improves. We become better managers, better parents, better leaders--even better air traffic controllers! We are more emotionally stable and often more creative.
What's interesting about this book is that its not a philosophical nor a political argument. It's a book based on scientific research. Strauch uses both people studies and research from neuroscientists, psychologists etc. to explain that our brains grow far more than we ever realized, into our 60s. While we lose one kind of brain cell, we increase others. And, studies of people in their 70s today indicate that people are smarter and more able to do things like solve puzzles than the people of the same age 15 years ago.
But this is not a book about how humanity is getting smarter, it's a book that looks into the human brain and how evolution has designed a middle-aged brain to be, in many ways, more able than the twenty-five year old version. Yes that twenty-five year old can keep from hitting the squirrel in the road more easily but life is more than reflexes. According to Strauch, humans are programmed to adjust to day to day annoyances, such as losing keys and forgetting names--just as we are programmed to grow wiser.
Strauch's clear explanations of the strengths of experienced people in their 50s (men and women continue to improve mentally through their 50s and into their 60s) combined with research debunking such myths as the "midlife crisis," and the "empty nest," make it clear that people who are older are often better equipped to handle the high stress of business today than their younger colleagues. It also means that those younger colleagues have a longer, and more productive future ahead than they may have expected.
The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain is good news for everyone, including those in their twenties and thirties, who after all will be fifty one day. Its good news for the 50 year old who loses her keys and wonders if she's declining, and for the 35 year old who wonders if she will ever feel truly "grown-up." The answer from Strauch is yes. People feel better as they get older. They feel more in control and they feel grown-up and handle the stress of life. Not only is their judgment better, they actually feel more cheerful, and focus more on the positive than they did while young. This is not really such a surprise. When you first saw Sully, the airline pilot who performed the "Miracle on the Hudson, " were you really surprised to see his white hair?
Lastly Strauch talks about the concept of wisdom, a word that has been considered "squishy," but which is gaining more currency with scientists who study the brain chemistry of the middle-aged as well as the behavioral studies of groups of people over long periods of time (some over forty years.)
Most people want to believe that as they live, they learn. This book holds the evidence that if you work at something for thirty years, you get to know more than a lot of facts, you learn to put those facts together. That's good news for all of us.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, The Powers That Be, is an overview of the “software” that makes up the brain and how it is enhanced (by experience, education, health, etc.) to be far more powerful in Middle Age than was previously suggested. The author discusses research that indicates the Middle Aged brain is agile enough to handle situations, complexities and challenges incomprehensible in earlier life.
The second section, The Inner Workings, highlights how the “hardware” (how the MA brain has been shaped by experience, genes, education, etc.) and “software” (what the MA brain knows and is able to learn) are co-creating a mind that can, with attention and a bit of luck, continue to learn, grow and develop well into one’s 70’s. This section also introduces how the brain can (and does) regenerate itself over one’s lifetime. This idea is exceptional news for those who have suffered brain damage and takes exception to the long-held idea that brain cells cannot be regenerated. It is also welcomed by those who are advancing in age without the “curse” of having diminished capacities merely because they are aging.
The final section, Healthier Brains, is just that, what can be done to have a healthier (and healthy) brain. Primary to that end is aerobic exercise. According to the author, any aerobic exercise produces new brain cells in the memory centers of lab animals (such tests on humans cannot be done due to the “untimely demise” required of the test subjects). Consistent such exercise has shown results in humans based upon cognitive testing. Added to exercise is diet. Eating foods higher in ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) and avoiding (of course) foods high in Trans fats have shown positive results. Some studies have shown low grade stress (like the stress produced by the hunger experienced while dieting, for instance) will improve the brain processes. Most of the studies mentioned by the author are in the early stages or are small sample studies. More than a few, however, are longitudinal (50+ years), broad sample studies, the gold standard of research.
This book is a good source for information about what happens to our “minds” as we age. The sources appear to lengthy, broad and well documented. It is easily accessed for reference and in not overly technical, allowing for a wider readership. It is of depth enough that it needs to be read carefully, it is NOT a weekend read.
Ms. Strauch is or was the Science Editor for the New York Times, and in that role she followed scientists around and reported on their findings. She writes like a smart friend of yours who's just fascinated by this topic and can tell a good story about what she has learned.
She quotes a lot of studies and research but in a really interesting way. For example, she'll look up the researcher, go out and interview him or her, and then ask the questions normal folks would ask. She doesn't just take their word for things, either. She asks good followups.
This is an interesting, readable book that made me happy about turning 60. I have quoted it so much in my own work - for example at http://www.anyshinything.com/boomersaging/middle-age-brainpower.
All I can say is, if you're worried about getting older, do yourself a favor and read this fun, entertaining, reassuring book.
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