Why the Brains of ‘Knowledge Workers’ Don't Wear Out
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By Mark Miller,
March 24, 2012

The Great Recession has left millions of midlife Americans up a creek without a paddle. Having lost jobs at the peak of their careers, they must find new work for the second half of their lives. Many will likely need to reinvent their careers – and may consider themselves too old to embark on something new.

Mark Walton begs to disagree. The former CNN correspondent transformed his own career 20 years ago by becoming a Fortune 100 leadership consultant. Now 61, Walton has spent the past five years studying people who transformed their careers successfully in their 50s or early 60s, and invented new ways of working that extended into their 70s, 80s or even 90s.

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A growing body of neuroscience research suggests that old dogs can learn new tricks, and that they can do it better than the young ones. Walton elaborates on how the scientific research connects with the real life experiences of successful midlife transformations in his new book, Boundless Potential: Transform Your Brain, Unleash Your Talents, Reinvent Your Work in Midlife and Beyond (McGraw-Hill).

He concludes that our brains are wired not for retirement, but for constant reinvention. And that seniors can tap extraordinary creative and intellectual powers in the second half of life – if they put in the required work.

'Mature Brain Is Organized Differently' 
"The mature brain may lose some of the processing speed and accuracy that the younger brain has, but it isn't inferior," says Walton. "The mature brain is just organized differently. And especially when it is adequately challenged, it keeps growing and developing new strengths and assets that the average younger brain cannot compete with because of the reservoirs of knowledge that we have – what we sometimes call wisdom."

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"The most significant factor influencing this process is how – and whether – we challenge our brains in midlife and beyond, by aspiring to and tackling higher levels of accomplishment," he says. "Simply put, our brains work best when worked hard. Doing this literally rewires and reorganizes the brain and allows new creative, intellectual and social intelligences to emerge and be put to work."

Walton draws on seminal research on aging brains, most notably the work of the late Dr. Gene Cohen, a pioneer in geriatric psychiatry. Cohen, who died in 2009, played a key role in revolutionizing the conventional wisdom about aging, and was well-known for his research on the effects that creativity can have on older adults and the aging process.