Worried that you are getting more forgetful as you get older and that your brain is losing its edge?  The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle Aged Mind, by Barbara Strauch can answer your questions about how your brain ages and how you can keep your mind in shape.

Ms. Strauch is a health and science editor at the New York Times and author of a prior book about the teen-aged brain. She pursued work on the middle age brain in part to answer questions about changes she noticed in her memory as she entered middle age. She did this by reviewing clinical studies and talking to those who performed the studies.

First of all, older people today outperform those of the same age from years ago. A study at USC compared cognitive scores of people today aged 74 to scores of 74 year olds taken 16 years ago. The current group of 74 year olds scored more like the 59 year olds of 16 years ago.

Younger brains process faster, but older brains can and do outperform younger ones. Older pilots in flight simulators initially took longer to catch on to a specific test, but once they did, they consistently outperformed the younger pilots on the test. Experience counts. For any skill it takes on average about 10 years to get really good at what you do so that you can control situations rather than situations control you.

Our brains are not static. We add neurons and increase neuronal connections over the years. Our brains remain plastic, and we can continue to learn. Social expertise increase with age, and we tend to focus more on positive things. We see more shades of gray emotionally which mitigates impulsive acts.  There is an increased willingness to look at different perspectives. There are increased levels of sympathy and compassion for others, less self-centeredness and more wisdom. The older brain is more bilateral using both hemispheres for tasks that a younger brain would use only one. Older brains tend to be less focused which may make memory retrieval more difficult. Steven Johnson in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, discusses the phenomena of neurons firing alternately in phase lock and chaos in the brain. In children, brains spending more time in chaos actually added IQ points. The chaos part seems to act like background dreaming in which new creative connections are sought out. It would be interesting to see if this is the case in older adults as well.

Brains make remarkable allowances for damage as well. Ms. Strauch told the stories of Sister Bernadette, who died at 85 of a heart attack, and the Chess Player, a professor who had a similar story. On autopsy, both had all the tangles and plaque of advanced Alzheimer’s disease, but neither had shown signs of the disease while alive. The Chess Player did express concern that he could only think four moves ahead rather than his usual seven before he did, but that was about it.  Why would this be so? There are several factors that play a part in maintaining and continuing to build brain function.

First, education matters. The more mentally challenging and complex the job, the lesser the chance of dementia. Be a life long learner. And tutoring and teaching others helps as well.

Second, exercise matters. A crucial part of memory takes place in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. Aerobic exercise builds this part of the brain like nothing else. You build brain and cognitive reserve with aerobic exercise. Toning and stretching exercises do not seem to have the same effect.

What we eat – dark colored fruits and vegetables in particular – and how much – low calorie is better – make a difference as well.

There are other factors as well, including moods and social engagement. Check out the book and exercise your mind. You can always learn new things.