The Positive Power of the Aging Brain

In this series of posts on aging, I have already had occasion to refer to Gene Cohen’s fascinating book The Mature Mind. In this post I’d like to share a substantial portion from Cohen’s work because it underscores a crucial point I have been keen to stress: the process of aging need not be cognitively negative and actually comes with many positives. Cohen writes:

Some of the most exciting research supporting the concept of positive aging comes from recent studies of the brain and mind. Much of aging research conducted during the twentieth century emphasized improving the health of the aging body. As a result of this research, life expectancy and overall health did in fact improve dramatically. Aging research at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in contrast, has expanded with a strong focus on improving the health of the aging mind. Dozens of new findings are overturning the notion that ‘you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.’ It turns out that not only can old dogs learn well, they are actually better at many types of intellectual tasks than young dogs.

The big news is that the brain is far more flexible and adaptable than once thought. Not only does the brain retain its capacity to form new memories, which entails making new connections between brain cells, but it can grow entirely new brain cells—a stunning finding filled with potential. We’ve also learned that older brains can process information in a dramatically different way than younger brains. Older people can use both sides of their brains for tasks that younger people use only one side to accomplish. A great deal of scientific work has also confirmed the ‘use it or lose it’ adage: the mind grows stronger from use and from being challenged in the same way that muscles grow stronger from exercise.

But the brain isn’t the only part of ourselves with more potential that we thought. Our personalities, creativity, and psychological ‘selves’ continue to develop throughout life. This might sound obvious, but for many decades scientists who study human behavior did not share this view. In fact, until late in the twentieth century, psychological development in the second half of life attracted little scientific attention, and when attention was paid, often the wrong conclusions were drawn….


Leave a comment