Advantages of an Aging Brain in the Workforce

Dedication

WBHI is valuably advocating for healthy female brain aging and needs our support: womensbrainhealth.org

It’s estimated that 80% of North Americans over the age of 85 are suffering with some degree of dementia. Women are twice as likely as men to live with dementia, representing 70% of cases worldwide, and almost always in caregiving positions at some point for the men unlucky enough to suffer from dementia as well. In many cases, age-related dementia is misdiagnosed and is often considered to have been completely preventable, though further research is needed to help us with better comprehension, prevention, diagnostics, and education globally. This article is dedicated to the Women’s Brain Health Initiative, a charity that is doing great work advocating for women to the scientific community about the research required to ensure better brain health for this and future generations. I support this great charity and the inspiring work they are doing, and hope you will join me in supporting them as well: Donate Now


Watch Christine Bentley, Kate Wheeler, and Brynn Winegard on WhatSheSaid Radio Discussing the Advantages of an Aging Brain in the Workforce, in Support of Women’s Brain Health Initiative:


An Aging Workforce

As goes the expression, while aging isn’t fun, it’s certainly better than the alternative. While our bodies and faces often change noticeably with age, it can often be harder for anyone, including ourselves, to see or understand how our ‘black box’ brains are aging: especially as these changes aren’t just visually concealed, but are usually continuous and gradual.

Aging is a natural process that itself should be less stigmatized and pathologized. Aging of most tissues including the brain is organic and gradual.

In my work, I often talk to large groups about the aging, ‘greying’ workforce and the ramifications thereof — the global population is aging on the aggregate along with our workforces and this has obvious ramifications for employers, managers, organizations, government, as well as the employees themselves. The majority of the aging, working population are ‘Baby Boomers’ (aged approximately 52–70 today) — the healthiest, wealthiest, happiest generation to have ever lived: if ’30 is the new 20’, often ’70 feels like the new 50’, with Baby Boomers reporting greater levels of productivity and satisfaction in their work lives than generations before them reported at the same age. Because of this Baby Boomers have and are projected to continue to stay in the workforce longer than their ancestors typically wanted to or would have been able to — especially with mandatory retirement rescinded for most professions, in most developed nations.

While the workforce is aging globally, advances in healthcare have extended the working life of most Baby Boomers — the healthiest, wealthiest, happiest generation to have ever lived.

This isn’t all just good news for the happy, healthy, wealthy, productive Baby Boomers, it’s been productive news for my training, talks, and research: the majority of a whole generation is now asking new questions, like “What does healthy, normal brain aging feel or look like?”, “What changes can I expect now and in the future?” , “What types of roles or projects should I opt into in order to present my best self and my best work?” Below I present some of the advantages of an aging brain in the workforce, as well as some research-based pointers for how to protect the healthy aging of your brain.

There’s a dearth of research about how the brain ages healthily, in a non-clinical, unpathologized way. Further research is required to allow a better understanding and education about the ways brains change naturally over the life course.

Watch Steve Paikin and Dr. Brynn Winegard Discuss The Aging Brain in the Workforce on TVO’s ‘The Agenda’ (2016)


Some Advantages of an Aging Brain in the Workforce

Though this often surprises people to hear, like a ‘fine wine that gets better with age’, so do some of the brain’s functional abilities. Functionally, our brains get better in four major ways: socially, emotionally, practically, and psychologically.

The brain ages advantageously in four major ways: socially, emotionally, psychologically, and practically

To start, as we all get older, we get better at emotional intelligence and interpersonal insight because of a more developed ‘mirror neuron system’ and ‘theory of mind’ abilities: years of dealing with others in all kinds of situations allows that our skills and ability to empathize, predict others’ behavior, understand others’ perspectives, harness real insight into others’ cognitive states, and to be able to thoughtfully considers others’ feelings or motivations in any given situation have significantly improved.

Our Emotional Intelligence, Mirror Neuron System, Theory of Mind, and Higher-Order Social Processing Get Better with Age

Further, because the older brain has a more developed prefrontal cortex, its ability to reason out cause and effect, consequence, longitudes, planning, big-picture thinking also gets better with age. Because of years of experience having watched things succeed and fail, the older brain is also better at being practical, less idealistic, and more realistic.

Older brains get more practical, more realistic, and less idealistic as we age.

While idealism in a youthful brain is often seen as a likely coping mechanism against pessimism and depression, the older brain doesn’t need this buffer — our brains become more optimistic as we age! This works largely because negative memories decay first, leaving only the positive ones to reminisce with, while the brain uses past events and memories as a heuristic to predict the future, allowing a more positive outlook in life and typically higher levels of reported happiness over the life course in healthy brains — now that’s some very functional forgetting!

On the aggregate, our brains get naturally more optimistic, less pessimistic, and happier over the life course.

Functional forgetting also likely allows opportunistic neural networks the ability to become better at ‘functional reorganization’ — the brain’s neuroplastic ability to reorganize in order to compensate for faltering or decreases in other abilities.

As we age our brain gets better at ‘functional reorganization’, intelligent design that allows for idiosyncratic neuroplastic compensation against neural faltering or error.

Take all these more developed emotional, social, psychological and practical cognitive reasoning skills together, and we see that older brains are typically better than their younger selves at:

Working in groups
Dealing with ambiguity
Understanding of multiple perspectives
Management skills (self and other)
Leadership skills
Strategizing
Long-term projects
Mediating
Practicality
Realism

Allowing a more natural fit for older brains relative their younger selves in roles such as (examples):

Planners
Strategists
Organizers
Managers
Leaders
Facilitators
Negotiators
Mediators
Arbitrators
Counsellors
Therapists
Speakers
Preachers
Regulators
Policy-makers

Keeping the Brain Aging Healthily

Here are some research-based tactics for how to keep your brain healthy throughout your career and life:

Minimize and manage stress actively — it’s a killer
Stay cognitively active and push your limits outside your comfort zone
Keep learning and stay curious
Stay physically active
Stay sexually active
Eat small amounts of nutritious food, often
Honor your new circadian rhythms and health needs
Volunteer your time
Pick up a hobby
Give back your time, energy, dollars (societal contribution)
Mentor people
Stay spiritual and faithful
Remember to seek and use humor and laugh often
There are many ways to ensure you and your brain age heathily. If you had to pick 1, minimization and management of stress are the best things you can do for yourself and your brain, health-wise.

Did You Know? Some Fun Brain Facts

Your brain is like your fingerprint — it’s function, anatomy, wiring are completely unique to you
Your brain is producing enough electrical power at all times it could power a 40W bulb 24/7
70% of your thoughts are ‘negative’
Our brains aren’t fully formed until the age of 25, though we start losing memory at age 24
You have 200B neurons when you’re born, 100B at age 25, and about 86B at time of death
Your brain uses up to 40% of all the oxygen you breath and the calories you eat
Your brain is a unique super computer. Approximately 95% of your thoughts are in fact subconscious. Your subconscious brain controls the majority of your thoughts, actions, behaviors, and decisions.

Dr. Brynn Winegard | Expert on Business Brain Science

Dr. Winegard is an award-winning professor and expert in business-brain sciences. She specializes in explaining everyday work and life phenomena using the secrets of brain science, all with aim of making her audiences happier, healthier, wealthier, and more successful. Learn more at: http://nsb.com/speakers/brynn-winegard/

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