March 25, 2020

Our Aging Brain



Several years ago I read, and reviewed a book,  Wisdom Paradox, about the effect of aging on our brain. The author made the point that our brain works differently as we age. Our mind has the potential to get stronger as the brain itself actually deteriorates in a physical sense. We gain the ability to more effectively analyze information and come to new conclusions to help us. Many of the neurons in our brain do die, but are replaced by other neurons that keep pace. The key point of that post was that we can gain wisdom and insight as we age.

Let's assume the author is correct: our mind can be stronger at 65 than 25 because we have gathered life experiences, both good and bad, for decades. Our brain sorts and connects all the electrical impulses in such a way that we are left with the ability to make better choices and decisions.

So, today I'd like your input. Can you share an example of how failures or successes in your past taught you important lessons that have helped you as you have aged? Do you find your earlier life experiences have resulted in an extra dose of wisdom now? Have you learned valuable lessons from simply being alive this long?

Maybe you disagree with the book's premise...that your younger mind reacted more quickly to a problem or seemed to generate lots of solutions? Now, you seem to fall back on the safe and customary responses rather than plot a fresh course.

I think it will be interesting for us to share stories how the effects of our aging brain and mind have served us during our retirement. To get the process started I'll share an example.

Would you take advice from this man?
For most of my life I have been quite controlling (ask my wife!). There are those that would claim I still am, and they are probably correct. Yet, this condition used to be much worse.

By my 34th birthday I was advising the ABC Radio networks. I had helped write a ground-breaking study for the Associated Press that help change the style of radio news. Radio stations were competing for my services. I was unstoppable. I was convinced I was smarter than most. I owned the golden goose.

Not so fast.  This attitude threatened my relationship with my wife and kids. It harmed my business because I rarely accepted someone else's fresh ideas. I didn't work to live, I simply lived to work. Ultimately, within 16 years I either became much dumber or I was never that smart to begin with: my business went into the toilet along with my invincible attitude. The illusion of control turned out to be just that: an illusion.

Fast forward several years from that point and I had that proverbial slap upside the head. I finally was able to analyze the decisions I had made on how I had lived my life. I could see the flaws in my world view. Quite clearly I was able to put together all the pieces of my life. I could see that where I had ended up should not have been a surprise. It was a direct result of my lack of life experiences and inflated ego. I had achieved success too easily and at too young an age.



Luckily, for me and those around me my mind has become much better at processing information and experiences. I know what it takes to live a life worth living. I understand a bit better the consequences of actions and attitudes. I am much quicker to listen to others and throttle my control gene. I have a better grasp of the difference between needs and wants.

I am not lamenting that I screwed up badly in my earlier days. The Wisdom Paradox makes the point that the experiences we have when we are younger are necessary for us to be "smarter" as we age. But, I am quite thankful that my (soon to be ) 71 year old mind is able to use my life experiences to help me live a life much more satisfying and complete and it has given me enough discernment to chart a more productive path.

OK...enough of my dirty linen flapping in the breeze. Can you think of a situation where your aging brain is actually stronger now than it was at some point in your youth? Are you better able to make sense of a crazy world and plot a path forward that is satisfying? 

Or, can you cite an example where those youthful neurons zipping around inside your head gave you an advantage you'd like to have back? Not necessarily short term memory skills, but a  feeling that creativity and and energetic learning are best seen in your rear view mirror?


27 comments:

  1. Your premise is based on what actually happens inside our brains as we age. If you want to know more about "dendritic sprouting," here's a link. https://seniordefender.net/2018/06/26/your-brain-is-shrinking-what-you-need-to-know-to-protect-yourself/

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    1. Thanks for the link to your article, Marlene. Reading about what parts of the male brain deteriorate the quickest was interesting but ultimately hopeful with the brain's ability to shift hemisphere skills, i.e. dendritic sprouting."

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  2. Re: Being controlling. A very wise therapist told me once that instead of labeling my behavior as being 'controlling' try subbing in the word 'annoying,' because the reality was that that's what I was being. 😅

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    1. Hah...that's great, and often quite accurate. I will start telling myself that when my control gene tries to kick in.

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    2. You mean when your 'Annoy' gene kicks in. 😆

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  3. Bob, thanks for sharing. Many times people see strong management skills as controlling. Note I did not use the term leadership to define management. The two terms mean totally different things to me. I spent a majority of my working career in a leadership type role, be it a leader of a technical discipline or in some role in people leadership and management. Leadership typically entails engaging other people to work with you to solve a problem or develop a new approach to business or an activity. Management entails ensuring metrics are obtained, analyzed, and tough decisions are made that leadership cannot sometimes make. There is a time and place for both skills when someone is leading an organization or a critical function. Using one skill over the other too much of the time can lead to failure. For many people, success and failure both are how learning and experience occurs, and this learning takes time to occur. Typically, someone with less experience will take more risks as they have yet to learn as much as someone whom is more experienced from their successes and mistakes. I see age as having little to do with the approach. If I were to embark on a totally different activity that I have little to no experience within, I would likely take more "risks" since I do not know what paths will lead to success or failure as much as I do with the activities I have a lot of experience in. So, when I analyze this topic, I see where one could state that older adults take fewer risks in life than younger folks might. In reality, we just have more experience in life than younger folks and know which paths were unsuccessful for us at the time we went down those paths. I try to mentor less experienced people to learn from my successes and failures and apply whatever they can to help them navigate their current situations and decisions. I encourage these less experienced people to take calculated risks even if I feel that the approach they are pursuing may lead to failure. I might be wrong because the variables have likely changed since I endured that particular event and I do not want to take the enthusiasm away from someone who has a new idea on how to solve or address an issues. Sometimes though, as a manager, I knew that I had to take charge and drive a path forward because the team I was leading was stuck in analysis paralysis and the business could not sustain a protracted issue as the team tried to address it. That's where experience and management came into play. My decision to manage the situation versus lead the team through it was based on a business need and I knew that the decision to manage would be a learning opportunity for the team members of what in their approach failed. We all continue to learn. Think about your own knowledge of finances and how you likely have more knowledge now than you did when you first retired about how your investments change over time and how bull and bear markets affect you and how you can mitigate against down times. Someone who is just diving off the retirement cliff with their parachute attached is likely at a different stage of security in retirement than you may be as they have yet to depend totally on their investments and retirement income plans to provide their living expenses. We all continue to learn and it is good for us to continue to be stretched to keep our minds sharp. Thanks for allowing me to share.

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    1. I learned early on in my career that I didn't play that well with others, I didn't really fit into a big corporate structure. Eventually, I went out on my own, operating solo.

      Unfortunately, being on your own tends to blind you to your faults and shortcomings. Without someone to give me fresh ideas and suggest I was off target about something, the only way I knew was when the client didn't renew a contract.

      I didn't analyze why that radio station went away. Instead I took the position that was part of the business with clients coming and going, learning little in the process. All that caught up with me and the business died.

      That forced my retirement at 52...terrifying at the time but it has been a tremendous 19 years. Lemonade out of lemons, right?

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    2. Bob, I was laid off at 53 and after a year of job searching, I decided to make lemonade out of lemons and have not looked back. God (some of you readers I know believe in something else) has a plan for each of us, and the twists and turns in life from what "we" had planned to what God has planned for us lead us into different directions that are most times much better than the paths we were on although it is difficult for us to see those twists and turns in a positive light when the occur.

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  4. What I notice is that I have a perspective that I lacked in my youth. I can see the big picture, so to speak. I see patterns and consequences that help me navigate better. It surprises me when my kids, for example, cannot see what is so obvious to me. And then I remember that at their age, I couldn't see that either. Having this perspective also helps me not be so buffeted by life's ups and downs, like in our present circumstances of upheaval and uncertainty.

    This all makes me think about other cultures that place higher value on the wisdom of elders. That's not to discount the vitality and enthusiasm of youth, but it does suggest a balance that is lacking in our youth oriented culture.

    I know my brain can't absorb and retain information or focus like it could in my younger years, but it sure is better at determining what is important and letting go of what isn't.

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    1. I find it extremely encouraging to think (?) of my mind changing and adapting rather than eroding. If I knew then what I have learned through many years of life experience, I am quite sure the business would have ended when I wanted it to, not when the clients did. I wouldn't have lost a few decades of a close and nurturing family life.

      Things have worked out well, thank goodness. It is a cliche, but live and learn.

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  5. I don't have the concentration right now to give this post more than a skim read, but I wanted to say I was here and I do think it's an interesting topic to explore. I do believe that our experiences in life give us an advantage in many ways over younger people who are quicker to embrace whatever is new. Sometimes new isn't better it's just different.

    I know for a fact that my brain is better than when I was younger because I no longer struggle with dyslexia to the same degree I did before my 40s. My niece whose career specialty was helping children with learning disabilities could explain it better then me but apparently there is a major transmitter between the two sides of our brains and mine was under developed and finally developed the neurons it needed. Hope this isn't too far off topic. It's just an example of how if we keep trying to learn new things, our brains have the ability to heal itself. I also saw this in my husband after his massive stroke. Took him three years to relearn how to read.

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    1. Yes, this is a post that takes some concentration and reflection to get the most from it. We are all so consumed with the news that I wanted to change subjects for just a little break.

      My oldest daughter and one of my granddaughters suffers from dyslexia. My daughter would spend hours and hours on her high school and college homework because of it. This was really at a time before any of us had a full understanding of what the problem was or how to deal with it.

      Luckily, the granddaughter is getting all sorts of special tutoring and practice to work on it early enough she should not struggle nearly as much.

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  6. Great post, Bob

    I have found that each “age” I pass through provides both advantages and disadvantages, acquisition and loss.

    Clearly, my more youthful brain was vital, energetic and provided me with high motivation and creativity… but also impulsivity leading to actions that were not adequately thought through. As a result, I had some of my greatest accomplishments and some of my largest disasters in my youth.

    To me, the wisdom of aging springs from pattern recognition. Challenges and joys in life become more of a “been there, done that” experience. When you have a shorter future than a past it is natural for most people to become more present and reflective—at least I have found this to be true for me. I watch young people (and some elders) live in, and fret about the future, because they assume they have one, and as a result they exhibit much more of a competitive nature. I think this is an evolutionary adaptation which, if properly managed, serves them well. As for me, I try to remain grounded in the present and bask in occasional reflection on the past and gratitude for the privilege of being alive, warts and all.

    Rick in Oregon

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    1. Being more in the moment is a benefit of our aging brain. Just paying attention to what is happening around us can bring real joy and satisfaction. That is certainly been my experience.

      Since we have been through it a few times in our 43 years of marriage, neither Betty or I have paid much attention to the huge stock market drops and rebounds over the past few weeks. Forty years ago we would have been nervous wrecks and probably done something stupid.

      Now, we trust in the system, the long term viability of our financial decisions, and only rwxct as spectators, not someone living and dying by the swings.

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  7. I often feel I've lived backwards. As you know, from my memoir, Daddy du jour, I was the adult in my family at a very early age. Then I got married at 18 and started my own family. I continued as the adult in the family until my sons became teenagers and we kind of hung out together. It's been an interesting life for me, thanks to my husband and my kids. Now I am (maybe) at the early stage of Alzheimers but fully aware of mistakes I make as I age. I'm not sure how I could have managed the aging process without my husband. He keeps me going!
    bh

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    1. If you have Alzheimer's, and I pray you don't, I see you as a person who will fight as long and hard as possible, find joy in all sorts of things, and have a loving husband and support system that will quietly kick into high gear. You may not know about it, but you can trust it will be there.

      Isn't that a comfort.

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  8. This from Kathy at smartliving365.com:

    Hi Bob! I agree that I did have a pretty invincible and inflated view of my intelligence when I was younger. I didn't think there was anything I couldn't do. Fast forward 40 years and I now know that I'm not even close to that smart or as creative. What I have picked up and learned is that my perseverance usually makes up for that lack of intelligence. Others give up...and i usually stick it out.

    I've also learned to contain my more, more, more drive and slow down and enjoy what's right in front of me to a much larger degree. Plus, when I focus on what is in front of me I am a LOT more intelligent than trying to balance 20 balls in the air at the same time! I'm enjoying the aging process in so many ways and those are just a couple of the ways. ~Kathy

    Kathy @ SMART Living 365

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    1. Google wouldn't let me add you under your name, either. I haven't a clue why so many people can add a comment and you cannot. But, I do appreciate you taking the time to send me your thoughts to my email.

      I was all about more-more-more in my business days,too. Being away from home for half the year and locked in the office when i was home almost destroyed my marriage. Losing the business was the best thing that ever happened.

      You and Thom stay safe. Keep posting those pretty pictures on Facebook and your Vlog on your blog.

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  9. Bob, I've read some of the research about how we develop more dendrites (connections between neurons) as we age, and it made sense of my experience of my own aging brain. I love the kind of "hyperthinking" I do now, the ability to make connections between things I would have carefully kept in different compartments when I was younger. Lessons learned as I've aged: (1) Nobody ever really has it all together. Just when you think you have everything the way you want it, life happens and it all unravels. But your next version is stronger and better. (2) Our strengths and our weaknesses are flip sides of the same coin; you can't have one without the other. (3) Everything must change.
    Another very interesting topic! Thanks.

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    1. Thanks, Jean. I like your summary of what happens inside our head and life.

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  10. My mind wandered down the same path as Galen's. Although I couldn't come up with a specific example - and it's rather difficult to explain - I believe that I'm much better able to envision how a particular problem (and any potential solutions) will play out than I was when I was younger. I think it's simply the result of collecting tiny bits of knowledge throughout my life without ever realizing just how wise my experiences were making me. I realize now that, when one of our kids does something that causes us to wonder what they were thinking, they really were thinking, but simply without the benefit of age and experience. Many people laugh at the phrase, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," but I sincerely believe it to be true. So intriguing!

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    1. I think of the difference like looking at a photo versus a movie. One captures a moment in time and portrays reality at that instant. A movie shows something or someone over a much longer period of time, allowing for more character and story development. Usually the situation at the beginning of the movie has changed by the end based on whatever someone has gone through, experienced, and with a deeper insight of reality.

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  11. Great article, Bob. Appreciate your forthrightness, the fact you are able to admit the error of your ways, so to speak. One of the most difficult things for an individual is to say 'I'm sorry' and 'I was wrong.' You seemed to have passed the test. To sum it up, Galen's thoughts tell it best: 'I know my brain can't absorb and retain information or focus like it could in my younger years, but it sure is better at determining what is important and letting go of what isn't.' A final thought, I would also like to say Kudos to your wife for hanging in there and congrats on 43 years!!! May you be blessed with many more years of a Satisfying Retirement.

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    1. We will celebrate 44 years in June, hopefully not still in home isolation!

      A failing business has a very powerful effect on a person. After denying what was coming for a year or two, I was forced to accept what was happening and why. With my eternal gratitude, my wife was a rock during this period and helped develop a plan to move the family forward.

      In retrospect, what caused things to fall apart was a combination of massive changes in the industry and an unwillingness to adjust on my part. With twenty years of perspective it is easy to see what went wrong and why. At the time, though, I was in denial and could not lean on enough experience to find a work-around.

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  12. “Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom.”
    - Terry Pratchett

    The quote above is all too true. I would though say our brains are more nimble and open to new ideas when we are young. While there are outliers at both ends (Einstein did his most seminal work prior to his 30th birthday while Alexander Fleming was 47 when he discovered penicillin) studies show that a scientist's greatest potential for discovery is during their thirties. This also lines up nicely Bob with your business success in your mid-thirties.

    Still, we all make lots of mistakes when we are young and hopefully we learn from them. Which I guess is the definition of wisdom.

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    1. I believe it is absolutely true that we learn more from failures than success. Without screwing up on occasion how else do we learn?

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