Book review: “The secret life of the grown-up brain”

“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.

The secret life of the grown-up brain by Barbara Strauch
“The secret life of the grown-up brain” by Barbara Strauch

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.



    1. It was a new idea to me, that brains might be at their best in middle age, and I must admit I was a little sceptical about the claims at first, but many of the experiences described resonated with me. When it comes to writing there seem to be a lot of people who don’t find success until later in life. Some of the novels I’ve enjoyed most have been written by more senior writers, and I think many writers produce their best work when they’re well into advanced years. I used to worry I was getting too old to develop a writing career, but now I wonder if I’m not yet old enough to write anything really good.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Ah, the middle aged brain! I would say that as we get older, our vocabulary is expanding like the universe, so no wonder we sometimes take a moment to choose a word! 🙂 I had heard that about purple and dark red coloured foods as well, and I don’t doubt the wisdom of it. But I wouldn’t want an anti-aging pill, thankful as I am for the health service in so many ways. So much of our wellbeing, physical and mental, is centred in our mind. It sounds like a very useful book. Love the new-look reply box in your blog, Lorna! Whizzing an airmail envelope into cyberspace right now. 🙂


    1. Thanks, Jo. I like the idea that I’ve accumulated lots of words, but I fear my filing system is not what it could be. I’m not keen on the pill idea either, but I daresay there would be plenty of takers. I like the airmail envelope, too; it makes me want to leave comments on my own posts. 🙂


  2. With the exception of prunes (I’ll take my prune share in plain plums, thanks:) ), I could live quite happily on a diet consisting just of those things. It’s the sort of thing I’ve started to pay attention to myself, as I’m tagging along just two years behind you. I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the blueberry thing, because it’s really just the skins, isn’t it, that are blue? Give me currants or blackberries any day 🙂


    1. It’s quite an enticing list, isn’t it? I’m not sure why prunes and raisins come above plums and grapes but perhaps they’re denser with being dried. As for the skins having the colour, that’s true and I’m not sure how much of a factor that is. If, for example, you peeled your grapes and blueberries (which would be an enormously tedious task, to my mind), would you still get the benefit from their insides? This thing about blackcurrants interests me because I’ve never seen them for sale, as far as I can recall. There are a lot of blackcurrant bushes grown commercially near me but the berries are bound for Ribena rather than being sold as plain fruits. It’s probably only a matter of time before some enterprising grower starts selling them in packs to supermarkets as superfoods. In the meantime, I’ve been wondering about growing them myself in the garden for personal use. Can you buy blackcurrants in shops where you are?


      1. Don’t know. We tend to get them in drinks too. Are dried currants blackcurrants? We have them at the supermarket. You could make super scones 🙂 with more currant than scone? Ribena. Yet another trademark we grew up thinking was ours. Yay for advertising… they do such a persuasive job, don’t they?


        1. Now there’s a question. I think I assumed they were a type of dried grape, like raisins and sultanas, but they’re certainly very small so perhaps they are blackcurrants. The name might suggest that, too, right enough. Strange that I’ve never thought about this before, thank you for bringing it to my attention. I do tend to put a generous amount of fruit into fruit scones but I don’t often use currants. Perhaps I should, now that you’ve educated me about them. Ribena do a very good job with their advertising, considering how unbelievably sugary their products are (except the sugar free stuff, which is packed with artificial sweeteners instead). I saw a Ribena ad the other day that I hadn’t seen before and I thought it was rather jolly. It’s on Youtube, here: (I like it at the normal speed but it gets really manic when they speed it up.)


  3. It’s good to read proof that we are not all ‘over the hill’ the minute we reach 40 (which actually seems really young these days!) I eat over half of the things on that list, but maybe I should work on more of them. I keep trying blueberries, because I know how good they are supposed to be, but I have decided that I just don’t like them.


    1. It’s funny how your perception of age changes as you get older. I used to think anyone out of their teens was ancient when I was a child. My mum doesn’t like blueberries much either, but the one way she does enjoy them is combined with apple in a crumble. They do taste different cooked, and when they’re hot all the juices come out and they’re delicious (at least, I think so). Have you tried them cooked?


      1. I’ve tried blueberry muffins, so I suppose they must be cooked in there, but perhaps with apples in a crumble might be a better way. I’m not a huge fan of apple crumble, but do like it when it is apple and bramble crumble, so perhaps I could try blueberries that way. I feel a trip to the shops coming on now, to pick up some Bramley apples! 🙂


        1. Your comment prompted me to buy a pack of blueberries and a couple of large Bramley’s when I popped into Tesco. Then I got home and discovered I already had four massive Bramleys that were bought a few days ago and I had forgotten about. Middle-aged brain trouble, but at least it means lots of nice fruit to eat up.


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