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What’s Different (and Better) About Our Older Brains

By Rebecca Milliken 

There is no denying that when we get older, our memory and eyesight just aren’t what they used to be.  I am just shy of 65, and I admit I often can’t remember what I was looking for when I go into the next room. Other days I have forgotten the name of the neighbor who lived down the street for 20 years and had the privilege of being bitten by our last dog.

The worst change, though, is being so dependent on our CVS reading glasses that I have to have a pair in every pocket because I forget where I have left them from minute to minute. CVS is making a fortune on those glasses.

It would be easy to think that this is the whole story about our brains at this stage of life- that it is all about what is going away, what we won’t be able to do any more. However, there is more going on in our brains as we get older than we have been led to believe.  Our brains at this stage actually are, in some ways, working better than they used to!

And are still capable of growing.

New brain research shows that the brain even as it ages is “still plastic”- able to create new neuronal growth and reorganization based on how it is used and engaged. Researchers are finding that older brains in fact are “rewired for reinvention”.  If challenged, these studies say, we can, as we age, do some things better than we used to.

Dr. Laura Carstensen of the Longevity Center at Stanford University has shown in her studies that many older people show greater flexibility in their thinking and can often deal with complicated, highly charged situations in more balanced ways than they might have earlier in their lives. Dr. Gene Cohen, author of The Creative Age, asserts that social and emotional intelligence, experience and different brain functioning later in life can produce a surge in original thinking that allows for innovative problem-solving as well as newfound capacity for creative exploration and experimentation.

Enhanced capacity? Who ever thought you could get better when you got older?

Matisse did – he started “painting with sissors” and produced his now most famous series of Cut-Outs after he was 72.

Harriet Doerr published her first novel Stones For Ibarra at 73.

Colonel Sanders started Kentucky Fried Chicken when he was 67, following a career as a firefighter and gas station owner.

Grandma Moses began painting at age 78.

Oliver Saks, writing about the joy of turning 80, said that he felt  “not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.”

Seriously, even for us less famous folks, there is something to this. I am not necessarily making a claim for wisdom. But sometimes I do feel more capable of ‘good,’ new thinking.

Over the last few years there have been many occasions when I have felt as if I am playing with an enriched deck of cards. I am less reactive and more deliberative. I say what I mean more often and know when the time is right to do that and, more importantly, when it’s not.

I have become involved in unfamiliar new projects and, at the same time, have given up a lot of activities that I felt obligated to do but resented. Now when I commit to do something, I want to do it and I do better at it because of that.

I am newly a mother-in-law and grandmother, a retiree and an apartment dweller, and am enjoying the newness of all these changes. What a surprise. Who knew that so much change and this kind of ‘aging’ could actually offer us a new, sometimes better,  different version of ourselves?

I like the idea that as we get older we might surprise ourselves by better thinking and new ventures. Next I’m considering taking up welding.


Rebecca Milliken is a recently retired psychotherapist  from Washington DC who is now  researching, consulting and writing about the ”The New Old Age”. She has a blog – Why Think Differently about Being ‘Older’? and a website – The Potential and Promise of Life in the 2nd Half.

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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