“It’s time we stopped dismissing middle age as the beginning of the end. Research suggests that at 40, the brain’s best years are still ahead.”

Eight years ago, that was the headline on a Newsweek story written by Dr. Gene Cohen, MD, PhD (founder of George Washington University’s Center on Aging, Health & Humanities). He went on to decry the mindset that “successful” aging is the effective management of decay and decline. Naturally, he continued, aging brings challenges and losses, but recent discoveries in neuroscience show that the aging brain is more flexible and adaptable than previously thought, and in some ways gets even better with age.

To the extent that we get out of life what we expect, this research is important because it hints at the potential beyond the 60 year threshold.  Once we absorb the implications of this new information, we can start to shift our expectations to much more positive territory, and become excited at the range of new possibilities.

Why am I talking about this in a column that usually focuses on topics related to building financial security? I have observed that many of my clients whose working lives have been busy and productive do not necessarily look forward to the so-called ‘golden years’ of retirement, even though as a result of the careful planning we have put in place, they are often financially well prepared to enjoy them.  I can certainly understand why.  It doesn’t take a psychologist to recognize that happiness is related to leading a life with meaning and purpose.  If this sense of purposeful living is derived primarily from your professional life, the abrupt rupture from that life as you enter retirement will come as a shock.  It’s evident that we need to prepare for the decades beyond age 60 on a psychological and emotional level as well.

As individuals, we need to develop a vision for how we can continue to add value to the lives of others.  New thinking about our mature years points the way.  Take an inventory of all your skills, expertise, and specialized knowledge.  Consider the immeasurable value of the two gifts of aging: your wisdom and your experience.  Weigh in the intangible benefits of being at your stage in life:  how much less self-centred you can afford to be than when you were building a lifestyle for yourself and your family; how much more confident and less self-conscious you are;  how much better you know yourself and what gives you a sense of being fulfilled.  Now, think of all the ways you could combine these gifts to create value for a non-profit or for-profit organization, solve a problem or create an opportunity in your community, offer a service that might morph into a new business, or even start a new career.

We can find courage and inspiration in reading about the fast developing information on how well our brains are designed to function through a long life.  Last month I referred you to a book by the science editor of the New York Times, Barbara Strauch: The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind, published in April 2010.  Its rather flippant title belies the evidence-based tone of the book and the wealth of scientific research she reports.

I encourage you to dip into the research yourself, but here are some highlights that have been reported by Strauch and others.  Not only does the brain retain many of the abilities of its younger self, it acquires new ones.  It can continue to rewire itself and make new connections, taking advantage of years of experience, expanding knowledge and learned behaviours.  We learn to use both hemispheres of our brain simultaneously, which may account for our increasing creativity, wisdom, and ability to see the big picture.  Yes, you may occasionally forget where you put your keys (episodic memory), but the problem in a healthy brain is not that you are losing your memory: it’s a retrieval issue, and you can learn strategies for coping with that. 

The Seattle Longitudinal Study (led by Sherry Willis, PhD) has tracked the cognitive abilities of thousands of adults over five decades. While showing some decline in memorization skills and perceptual speed, middle-aged adults have outperformed their younger selves on four out of six cognitive tests: verbal abilities, spatial reasoning, simple math abilities, and abstract reasoning skills.

How does all of this translate into real life situations?  In 2007, Neurology (Vol. 68, No.9) published the results of a 3-year study of 118 pilots aged 40 to 69 showing that the younger ones had faster processing speeds, but over time, the older ones were more effective at avoiding collisions in simulated situations.  Guess who I want flying my plane?

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Sask Business, authored by Daryn Form.

Daryn Form is a Senior Financial Advisor with Assante Capital Management Ltd. providing wealth management services to principals of family-owned and privately held companies. Assante Capital Management Ltd. is a member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund and is registered with the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada.  The information mentioned in this article is for general information only. Please contact him to discuss your particular circumstances prior to acting on the information above.  The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Assante Capital Management Ltd.  Rates are not guaranteed and are subject to change at any time without notice.