The good news at 50-plus: By many measures, your thinking has never been better. People know it.
The reality check at 50-plus: Lifestyle choices may be hurting your gray matter in silent ways. You’ll want to change that.
- Your reasoning skills are going strong. “Crystallized intelligence” refers to your ability to use learned knowledge and experience to solve problems. Research shows that you’re as strong as ever in this key form of thinking. No wonder the average Fortune 500 CEO gets hired at age 50 — and that airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was 57 when he successfully landed that jetliner on the chilly Hudson River in 2009.
- Your memory center is still steady. Yes, it’s true that the human brain loses 5 percent of its volume per decade starting in the 40s. But relax: That doesn’t have any impact on your ability to think or function. In particular, your hippocampus — a key memory center in the brain — is holding steady in size, as is your brain’s white matter, the crucial nerve bundles that carry signals from one part of the brain to another.
- You don’t freak out as easily. The brains of older adults process emotions in a healthier way. Your “Take it easy” prefrontal cortex is now hooked up with your more reactive “OMG!” amygdala. The result is that you respond less strongly to negative situations and get a bigger charge out of positive stuff.
- … but stress hasn’t gone away. One in 4 people in their 50s say their stress is going up, up, up. Money, work and — oh, yes — the future of our nation were top stress-makers for U.S. adults in 2017. Don’t let the tension morph into depression. One recent study showed that just an hour a week of easy exercise lowered the risk for depression by 12 percent.
- Hormone changes can help. Why are wives always saying, “We already talked about this”? There’s a reason why husbands have trouble remembering their wives’ words. It’s hormones. In a study, women ages 45 to 55 outperformed their male counterparts in a series of memory tests, and premenopausal women outperformed postmenopausal women, possibly due to a decline in estrogen after menopause.
- High blood pressure might be hurting your brain wiring. Thirty-three percent of people in their 50s have high blood pressure, and half don’t have it under control. The brain connection: High blood pressure can shrink your brain, scramble brain-cell connections and damage blood vessels. All this boosts your future risk for Alzheimer’s disease by 60 percent.
- … and so is all that dessert you’re eating. Another reason for you to manage your blood sugar is that too much of it damages arteries that feed your brain cells. Plus, elevated blood sugar encourages the buildup of the plaques and tangles that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. The take-home message: “There is growing recognition that we need to address cardiovascular risks in midlife to protect the brain in old age,” says Elizabeth Selvin, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “The lesson is that to have a healthy brain when you’re 70, you need to eat right and exercise when you’re 50.”
- Say hello again to your dreams. The architecture of your night’s sleep gets an overhaul by the time you hit your 50s. You have less deep sleep, as well as less memory-consolidating REM sleep and more time spent in the light stages of slumber. Make the most of every night’s sleep by using a night filter or blue-light-filtering glasses with your electronic devices (or simply turn ’em off a few hours before bed). Cutting exposure to blue light improved sleep quality and length, a recent University of Houston study discovered.
- Your brain might want a pet kitty. Sure, you’ve heard all about the mood-boosting benefits of owning a dog. But don’t underestimate the power of having a cat in your home. Of 47 million U.S. households with a cat, 1 in 3 owners are in their 50s or 60s, according to a 2017 national survey. The benefits? In a 2017 study, cat owners who were in their late 50s had half as many diagnosed health conditions and took 30 percent fewer prescribed medications as did their counterparts who didn’t own a cat.