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Memo to H.R: Older Brains = Smarter Brains

Baby Boomers looking to keep working well into their 60s and beyond may have just found their patron saint in New York Times science editor Barbara Strauch. In her new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, Strauch makes a compelling case that older brains are smarter brains.

A few weeks ago I reported on the job-hunting mistakes Baby Boomers are making in today's tough market. In addition to avoiding those job-hunting missteps, perhaps one of the best moves for job seekers is to get this book into the hands of every hiring manager in America. Far from a liability, your aging brain can be a valuable asset.

Think Again: The Value of the Aging Boomer Brain
Strauch draws on a long-term longitudinal study that has been tracking the brain performance of study subjects as they age. Far from deteriorating, it seems that our brains, if not our knees, hit their stride in middle age:

...what the researchers found is astounding. During the span of time that constitutes the modern middle age - roughly age forty through the sixties - the people in the study did better on tests of the most important and complex cognitive skills than the same group of people had when they were in their twenties. In four out of six of the categories tested - vocabulary, verbal memory, spatial orientation, and, perhaps most heartening of all, inductive reasoning - people performed best, on average, between the ages of forty to sixty- five.
In a recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Strauch expounded on the upside of aging
We think we're sort of the smartest in college or in graduate school, but when we do the tests we find that's not true in many areas, including inductive reasoning...We are better than we were in our 20s. And that to me is amazing.
Amen. Interestingly, it's not as if employers are clueless about the talents of the well-seasoned brain. In a 2006 study of employer attitudes toward older workers, less than 10 percent of white-collar seasoned workers were viewed as "less productive."

Source: Center for Retirement Research at Boston College

Clearly skill isn't the issue. Salary is another matter. There's no getting around that older workers tend to be more expensive (salary and benefits.) And there's no question that many older workers may need to readjust their salary expectations as they job-change later in their careers. But as Strauch's book makes clear, at the right salary, older workers can provide valuable brain power to an organization.

Mind Games
While the middle-aged brain can continue to operate at a high skill level when it comes to reasoning and problem-solving, some brain skills do in fact deteriorate with age. Just ask anyone eligible for AARP membership about their ability to recall names quickly. The good news is that the brain skills that don't age well seem to be less vital then the cognitive skills that actually improve with age.

As for keeping your neurons firing at a high level, Strauch says the research points to two forms of exercise. Turns out good old physical exertion that gets the blood flowing can help keep your brain toned. You also want to give your brain plenty of mental exercise. As I mentioned in an earlier post, pushing your brain out of its comfort zone - exploring new ideas, trying new hobbies, studying a new language - helps an older brain stay smart.

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