Brain Functioning

The brain at midlife has been shown to not only maintain many of the abilities of young adults, but also gain new ones. Some individuals in middle age actually have improved cognitive functioning (Phillips, 2011). The brain continues to demonstrate plasticity and rewires itself in middle age based on experiences. Research has demonstrated that older adults use more of their brains than younger adults. In fact, older adults who perform the best on tasks are more likely to demonstrate bilateralization than those who perform worst. Additionally, the amount of white matter in the brain, which is responsible for forming connections among neurons, increases into the 50s before it declines.

Emotionally, the middle aged brain is calmer, less neurotic, more capable of managing emotions, and better able to negotiate social situations (Phillips, 2011). Older adults tend to focus more on positive information and less on negative information than those younger. In fact, they also remember positive images better than those younger. Additionally, the older adult’s amygdala responds less to negative stimuli. Lastly, adults in middle adulthood make better financial decisions, which seems to peak at age 53, and show better economic understanding. Although greater cognitive variability occurs among middle adults when compared to those both younger and older, those in midlife with cognitive improvements tend to be more physically, cognitively, and socially active.

Learning Objectives: Cognitive Development in Middle Adulthood

  • Describe crystalized versus fluid intelligence
  • Describe research from the Seattle Longitudinal Study
  • Explain the importance of flow to creativity and life satisfaction
  • Describe how middle adults are turning to college for advanced training
  • Describe the difference between an expert and a novice
  • Describe the changes in the U.S. work force, especially among middle adults
  • Explain the importance of leisure to mental health and a successful retirement