“The secret life of the grown-up brain” by Barbara Strauch (2010), non-fiction
There are many books about the brain and how it functions, and I’ve read one or two, but this is the first I’ve come across that deals specifically with the brain during middle age.
While reading this book I assumed that Barbara Strauch was some sort of brain scientist herself, but it was only after finishing it that I learned she wasn’t a scientist at all. She had a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and I don’t think she ever worked as a scientist. She died last year of breast cancer, aged 63, and prior to that worked as the health and medical science editor and deputy science editor at The New York Times.
I was sad to learn of her death, not only because she was relatively young, but because it seemed so poignant after she had dedicated herself to this particular area of study. She died in what the book defines as middle age, i.e. loosely between the ages of 40 and 70.
It is during these years that the brain is now thought to be in prime condition. Anyone, like me, currently in this zone might find that hard to believe. I’m 44 and I’ve noticed in the last year or two that I more often struggle to find the word I want. This happens quite a bit when I’m writing, and if it wasn’t for the magic of a thesaurus I suspect I’d be a very frustrated and distressed individual.
Strauch argues that although we have a greater tendency to forget things and take longer to learn new skills during middle age, our brains become far more flexible and powerful than they were in our earlier adult years. In middle age we’re better at making sound judgments and finding solutions to problems, because we have a wider understanding of life and a greater appreciation of the possible consequences of our actions.
Part of the book that particularly interested me was the section on diet and how it might affect our brains. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed a system for ranking foods in terms of their antioxidant capacity, and this list is apparently responsible for the recent idea of blueberries being some sort of superfood. As a brief aside, this ties in with a programme I watched on TV recently that showed research being done into the beneficial effects of purple as a food colour. The consensus was that purple or dark red foods are especially good in terms of helping us age well. Blackcurrants came out far ahead of blueberries in that programme, but they were using a scale that tested for the presence of a particular chemical rather than the food’s antioxidant capacity.
Back to the book, and Strauch very helpfully details the top 25 foods on the USDA list. They are as follows: prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, garlic, kale, cranberries, strawberries, raw spinach, raspberries, Brussels sprouts, plums, alfalfa sprouts, steamed spinach, broccoli, beets, avocadoes, oranges, red grapes, red peppers, cherries, kiwifruit, baked beans, pink grapefruit and kidney beans. As you might have noticed, most of these foods are dark in colour, which is apparently a key to their success. Carrots, incidentally, come in at no.40 on the list, and tomatoes no.42.
As is virtually always the case in science, nobody yet fully understands how or why things work the way they do. One week we read in the newspaper that dairy products are good for us, the next they’re bad, and it can be very confusing to try and work out what we should eat, how much and what sort of exercise we should be getting, and what we can do to keep our brains in good condition as we age.
As Strauch says in her book, there are many factors at play in terms of the health of mind and body and some of these, such as our genetic make-up, we have no control over. Her message, however, is a generally positive one.
By middle age, our brains have trillions of carefully constructed links and pathways that make us smarter, calmer, wiser, happier. These are the connections that let us, in an instant, recognize the underlying patterns around us and make sound judgments – good choice, bad choice, friend or foe? By middle age, our brains navigate complex situations and complex fellow humans almost on autopilot.
I had been hoping that the book might include a practical section that neatly wrapped up all the research into a ‘how to live long and prosper’ sort of instruction manual. Sadly, there is as yet no one-size-fits-all answer to a long and healthy life for everyone, but drugs companies are currently working on a pill that might well slow down the aging process considerably. I’m not sure how I’d feel about taking an anti-aging pill. Something about that seems as if it would be going against the natural order. Then again, if it weren’t for the excellent modern healthcare I grew up with, I might well not have made it into my forties.
Only time will tell if there’s a sure-fire way of preventing our middle-aged brains from potential deterioration in later years, but in the meantime I’m going to keep that list of antioxidants handy and do my best to incorporate as many as I can into my diet.