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"Can I still compete?"
It's a question many of us increasingly ask as we reach middle age.
We watch younger colleagues master new computer systems with ease or pull all-nighters with nary a hair out of place and — quite naturally — we're concerned.
Luckily, recent research in brain science suggests that perhaps we should fret less.
Over the past few years, neuroscientists have begun to zero in on the brain's changes in middle age, and what they've found is encouraging. Results of long-term studies show that — contrary to stereotypes — we actually grow smarter in key areas in middle age which, with longer life spans, now stretches from our mid 40s to our mid to late 60s.
In areas as diverse as vocabulary and inductive reasoning, our brains function better than they did in our 20s. As we age, we more easily get the "gist" of arguments. Even our judgment of others improves. Often, we simply "know'' if someone — or some idea — is to be trusted. We also get better at knowing what to ignore and when to hold our tongues.
Not long ago, a mid-level executive told me how he'd recently changed the way he deals with younger colleagues. When gathered to discuss a problem, he keeps his "mouth shut'' and listens. Even though — more often than not — he has a good solution, he waits. He does not speak.
"I find it works best if I let the younger workers talk first, wrestle with the problem in their own way,'' he told me. "Then after a while, I say what I think might work. I'm not sure why, but this seems to work best and to help us all learn and solve the problem better.''
In fact, though he did not realize it, the executive was using the best parts of his calmer and more experienced middle-aged brain to help him manage his situation — and get better results.
It's true that by midlife our brains can show some fraying. Brain processing speed slows down. Faced with new information, we often cannot master it as quickly as our younger peers. And there's little question that our short-term memories suffer. It's easy to panic when you find you can't remember the name of that person you know in the elevator, or even the movie you saw last week.
But it turns out that such skills don't really matter that much. By midlife our brains have developed a whole host of talents that are, in the end, just as well suited to navigating the modern, complex workplace. As we age, we get better at seeing the possible. Younger brains, predictably, are set up to focus on the negative and potential trouble. Older brains, studies show, often reach solutions faster, in part, because they focus on what can be done.
By the time we reach middle age, millions of patterns have been established in our brains, and these connected pathways provide invaluable perspective — even when it's subconscious. For instance, some middle-aged managers I've spoken with talked about how solutions seem to "pop'' into their heads "like magic.''
It doesn't come from magic, of course, but from the very real — and often unappreciated — talents of our middle-aged brains.
Barbara Strauch is a deputy science editor and health and medical science editor at The New York Times and author of The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind (Viking), coming out in April.