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Still, there's something very real about the way creativity endures in the face of age--and maybe even pushes back age. By now it's a gerontological given that the active, busy brain is also the brain that stays lucid longer, that resists dementia and other cognitive problems better. And it's a biological given that sedentary, bored or depressed people are far likelier than happy and occupied ones to come down with physical ailments. Increasingly, brain research is showing that in the case of creative people, this mortal cause-and-effect pays powerful dividends--that it's not just the luck of living a long life that allows some people to leave behind such robust bodies of work but that the act of doing creative work is what helps add those extra years. And that's something that can be available to everybody.
"Doctors have to think creatively, lawyers have to think creatively, hedge-fund guys who come up with ways of making us not know what we're buying have to think creatively," says Dr. George Bartzokis, a neurobiologist and professor of psychiatry at UCLA. "Their work may not get hung in museums, but being able to do what you love makes you more satisfied, less depressed, and you'll probably do better with your body as a result." The key is finding work that calls on you to remain nimble, adaptive, even visionary, to invent ideas and solve problems on the fly rather than just responding to the same questions with the same answers again and again. As people facing deadlines often lament, work tends to expand to fill the time you have to do it. Now, science suggests, time just might expand to contain the work with which you choose to fill it.
This Is Your Brain on Age
If it comes as a surprise that human beings have the power to be so creative for so long, it's only because we've tended to underestimate the regenerative power of our brains. Like all other parts of the body, the brain wears out with age, but the thinking had always been that unlike those other parts, it had no ability to repair itself, meaning it couldn't stay ahead of at least some of the damage. That suggests a steady loss of intellectual altitude from middle age to our early senior years, culminating in a terminal plunge at the end.
It turns out, however, that that's not true. One process that starts early, in babyhood, is myelination--the growth of fatty insulation on neurons, which keeps brain circuits running smoothly. In recent years, researchers were surprised to discover that myelination isn't completed until young adulthood, when the full suite of executive functions in the prefrontal cortex comes online. Still more recent studies, conducted with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and postmortem exams, have pushed the myelination limit even further. In some parts of the brain, including the temporal--which is involved with processing visual memories, language, meaning and emotions--insulating fat layers are still being laid down when we're in our 50s and even 60s.