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Aging Well
Brain Health

Why You Should Thank Your Aging Brain

If you forget a name or two, take longer to finish the crossword, or find it hard to manage two tasks at once, you’re not on the road to dementia. What you’re experiencing is your brain changing the way it works as you get older. 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 are. Here, from the Harvard Women’s Health Watch is some good news about aging brains:

The older brain at work

How is it possible for older people to function better even as their brains slow? “The brain begins to compensate by using more of itself,” explains Dr. Bruce Yankner, professor of genetics and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Laboratories for the Biological Mechanisms of Aging at Harvard Medical School. He notes that 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 share the task equally.

The cooperative effort has a payoff. “Several studies suggest that seniors who can activate both sides of the brain actually do better on tasks, while those who can’t do worse,” Dr. Yankner says.

Compensating for the downsides

If you’ve found that it’s a little harder to carry on a conversation while searching your bag for your keys, MRI studies offer some clues. They show that in younger people, the area of the brain used to do a task goes dark immediately once the task is completed, while in older people it takes longer to shut down. As a result, it’s harder for the older brain to take on several tasks, because not only do you need to use more of the brain for any single task, but the brain also has a harder time letting go of a task. So even after you fish out your keys, you may have trouble getting back into the conversation.

What about the moments when you find yourself driving down the street without any recollection of having passed the last few blocks? Or the times you’ve locked the car door with your keys in the ignition? On those occasions your brain may have slipped into the default mode, which controls processes like remembering and daydreaming that are not required for a directed task. Imaging studies show that interconnected regions of the brain dubbed the “default network” grow more active with age, indicating that as we age we spend more time daydreaming.

  • A simple exercise can help your mind stay focused on the task at hand.

    Make a list. Jot down the times when you’ve zoned out, forgotten what you were doing, or misplaced something you need. Were you doing something so routine—driving a familiar route or shopping at the supermarket—that you may not have to give it much conscious thought? Were you under stress, like rushing to an appointment?


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