womenTALK: Blog

Tuesday, Apr 27th 2010

The Secret Life of a Grown-Up Brain

authored by Sheryl Kraft

I once left my cell phone in the freezer. My favorite black pashmina has been missing for nine months now, in all probability draped over the shoulders of an unscrupulous stranger who picked it up wherever I walked off without it. And don't even get me started on the countless pairs of reading glasses I have known, like the aqua ones with the little delicate flowers on the side that everyone – including me – loved. For the life of me, I can't remember where I left them, or even where I wore them last.

C'mon, speak, memory! But it won't speak; it won’t even whisper to me on certain days.

I wonder: am I different from any other adult my age?

No, if it's any comfort (it is; a little). Something happens to our brains as we slide into middle age. Scientists do confirm this. The brain slows down. It forgets. It tenuously hold onto facts, figures, things we read, movies we saw and then – bang! – just as quickly as the door to our memories opens, it slams. It may be losing a favorite item, forgetting a familiar name or even forgetting that we've already read that book that we're halfway through (for a second – or maybe even a third - time).

Brain scans show that as we age, our processing speed slows down. We are more distractible and have more trouble focusing. We want to remember, but memories fade. What did I come in here for? What was I just going to say?

It's a common middle-age mantra.

Okay, time to cheer up! I don’t want to make this all gloom and doom. I came across a story on NPR about Barbara Strauch, a science writer who (thankfully) has written a book called The Secret Life of The Grown-up Brain. (I haven't read it yet, but plan to). Although I'm fully aware that some of us never do grow up, she's covering people between 40 and 65.

What struck me about Strauch's research is that she says that as time passes, our brain actually improves in certain areas. For instance, take the wisdom we get with age. Strauch says that the brain's fatty white matter that coats the tails of our brain cells and is important to the middle-aged brain, increases as we experience and learn things. As a result, we see connections, size up a situation, see the big picture – better than we did when we were in our 20s. (While I like good news as much as the next person, indulge me and let me play devil's advocate for a moment. Could it simply be that the sum of our life experiences and the resulting trial and error - rather than the white matter in our brain - gives us that hard-won wisdom and insight?)

In any case, I think we all agree there's something going on in our brains and we'd like to learn how to deal with it. I'll cut to the chase. Here's how to deal with some of our brain's cruel tricks:

Distractions: We grow more distracted as we age. Thoughts are like rubber balls, bouncing in and out of our heads. The slower processing speed of our brain makes us miss out when we are first trying to focus on something.

This matters> Focus very hard at the beginning of things to zoom past that momentary lapse. I've been trying this and you know what? It really works. That is, if you remember the tip…

Forgetfulness: We remember the old stuff: where we lived, our childhood friends, how to ride a bike or play tennis. (I even remember lots of phone numbers from when I was a teenager yet sometimes I forget my own now!)  But remind me again of your name, even though I just met you? Strauch says that short-term memory "gets a bit dicey along the way." I'll say. What to do?

This matters> This mental trick almost always works: go through the alphabet (silently, of course) if you're trying to come up with a name. It can jog the correct pathways when a name is so close, yet so far.

How's your brain functioning? And what tips do you use to keep it sharp?

Want to read more?

Your Mental Health at Midlife
Untangle My Brain Please?

Subscribe to Midlife Matters by Email


May 12, 2010 14:May 2 | sherry steiker said


This is a first for me. I could not find my bra yesterday, took everything out of the drawer and it finally dawned on me.. I was wearing it!!!!!!!!!!!

May 14, 2010 11:May 11 | Sheryl said

That's a funny one, Sherry.

That's a funny one, Sherry. The SAME thing happened to me with my glasses - couldn't find them, looked all over and then realized...I had them on.

Apr 28, 2010 23:Apr 11 | sarah henry said

where are my

where are my keys/glasses/purse? is a constant refrain in my house.

i'm scared to death of losing mental sharpness, which is why i've become obsessed with playing scrabble on my I-phone. i'm addicted!

Apr 29, 2010 11:Apr 11 | Sheryl said

Are you sure we don't live in

Are you sure we don't live in the same house, Sarah?

Hmm. scrabble on your I-phone? That sounds like fun. How do you play scrabble solo, though?

Apr 28, 2010 14:Apr 2 | ruth pennebaker said


Really provocative post. I *know* I'm not as quick as I used to be, but do think I'm wiser. Nice to get some compensations as the years pass.

Apr 29, 2010 11:Apr 11 | Sheryl said

I couldn't agree more, Ruth.

I couldn't agree more, Ruth. Wise can be a huge compensation for speed, can't it?

Apr 28, 2010 13:Apr 1 | Donna Hull said

I'll be trying both of your

I'll be trying both of your brain tricks, especially the one about focusing harder. My parents keep word and number puzzle books on the kitchen counter. Every couple of hours, they sit down and work a puzzle. I can say that it has helped their short term memory any but their overall ability to think and reason is sharp.

In the future, it will be interesting to see how much the distractions of cell phones, texting and social media will affect the way our brains work.

Apr 29, 2010 11:Apr 11 | Sheryl said

Your parents have a good

Your parents have a good idea...think I'll try that!

and yes, it'll be interesting to see about all those distractions. Some people say it makes the mind even sharper, but I tend to doubt that...at least, not for me. What it does is take away my focus in a big way.

Apr 28, 2010 09:Apr 9 | Nancy Monson said

I have definitely noticed

I have definitely noticed some perimenopausal brain fog myself, but I hear that clears up as you advance beyond menopause. I'm waiting for that! I've also heard that the brain doesn't just fade as we age, it also expands because we've made so many more neural connections than younger people. It's a different brain and we have to adjust.

Apr 29, 2010 11:Apr 11 | Sheryl said

Here's to the brain fog

Here's to the brain fog lifting and for adjusting to the new and different brain version!

Apr 28, 2010 08:Apr 8 | david butch said

Hi, If you want to keep your


If you want to keep your health in good condition then make use of Steam Sauna.

Apr 28, 2010 03:Apr 3 | Jennifer Margulis said

Keep exercising your brain

I've read that turmeric and crossword puzzles both really help keep your brain sharp! Also, there are books that include memory and other exercises that can improve your memory lapses. I find I really feel smarter when I do some of those, like I can feel my poor tired 40-year-old brain getting sharper!

Apr 28, 2010 10:Apr 10 | Sheryl said

True. My next post will be

True. My next post will be about these foods and games. Stay tuned!~

Apr 28, 2010 02:Apr 2 | Melanie Haiken said

Midlife Memory - Yikes!

These are great tips, thanks. I have major midlife memory problems, to the point that my kids have started telling me something then stopping and saying, okay Mom, do you need me to say it again so you'll remember? A friend and fellow journalist, Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, wrote a book called Carved in Sand about memory and memory research that's a great resource on the subject. Highly recommended.

Apr 28, 2010 10:Apr 10 | Sheryl said

Thanks for the

Thanks for the recommendation, Melanie.

And what cooperative kids you have! Instead of getting exasperated with you, they actually are helpful in your memory challenges.

Apr 28, 2010 01:Apr 1 | Kristen said

I was listening to this

I was listening to this report on NPR's Fresh Air (Terry Gross has to be the best interviewer). One point I liked from the interview is that contrary to previous scientific thinking, the grown up brain doesn't shrink as we age. Whew! I also liked some of her memory exercises that she suggested. I've been using them and it seems to help.

Apr 28, 2010 10:Apr 10 | Sheryl said

Yes, she is a great

Yes, she is a great interviewer, I agree. The brain indeed does not shrink - good thing. I'd love to know which memory exercises work for you!

Apr 27, 2010 16:Apr 4 | Alexandra said

Yes, great post! I have been

Yes, great post! I have been trying that focus trick and agree that it does work. My husband is nine years older than me and I have been noticing recently that he is no longer as patient. When he wants something, he wants it NOW. This did not happen gradually. Nope. All of a sudden. Like with growing children, there seem to be plateaus in development for aging adults.

Apr 27, 2010 16:Apr 4 | Alisa Bowman said

I was stupid in my 20s. I'm

I was stupid in my 20s. I'm forgetful in my almost 40s. I'll take forgetful over stupid any day.

Apr 28, 2010 09:Apr 9 | Sheryl said

Forgetful over stupid is good

Forgetful over stupid is good - then you might even forget that you were ever stupid :)had

Apr 27, 2010 14:Apr 2 | marthaandme said

The thing that makes me the

The thing that makes me the craziest is when I say one thing and mean another. The other day my daughter wrote raw almonds and raw walnuts on the shopping list. I've been buying the almonds for a while for her, but have never seen raw walnuts. I meant to say that. Instead I said that I've never seen raw almonds. And I didn't even notice that that was what I said! Argh! I think this kind of thing happens to me once a week and I hate it!

Apr 28, 2010 09:Apr 9 | Sheryl said

MandMe - if it's only once a

MandMe - if it's only once a week, I'd say you're in better shape than me!

Apr 27, 2010 13:Apr 1 | Christine said

Great topic. I'd like to read

Great topic. I'd like to read that book about the secret life of the grown up brain....if I remember to! Memory is a huge issue for me, but part of it is also from being so frazzled and having too much on my plate, I suspect.

Apr 28, 2010 09:Apr 9 | Sheryl said

I agree, Christine, that

I agree, Christine, that having so much to do can definitely make you forgetful and harried. Multi-tasking, however tempting or even necessary, usually backfires. :(

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