Search our site

Custom Search

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Midlife Matters

The really exciting thing about psychology is there are a huge number of unknowns... but for me a really important part is understanding how high level cognition and decision making change in adulthood. - says Lily Fitzgibbon, a researcher in psychology at the University of Birmingham, who is exploring unknown pastures in psychological science.

Middle adulthood, commonly defined as your 30s, 40s and 50s, is a key time for making significant life changing decisions. It is also precisely what the Online Wisdom Lab (OWL) team at Birmingham University want to explore, and they are already underway preparing a suite of apps for members of the public to download and contribute through.

The majority of research into adult psychology is done at universities on the most readily available source of adult volunteers - university students. But perhaps this has led us astray a little, because this means that our current understanding of adult psychology is based almost entirely on the psychology of 18-21 year olds - at least until later adulthood, where some researchers have explored decline in cognitive abilities and its connections to illnesses such as Alzheimer's. Even though I like to think I was a pretty together undergraduate student, I'm not sure I'd feel represented now by the psychology of 18-21 year olds. When I was 21 I tried to take a piano hill walking. I broke into my friends' houses and left them hidden chocolate muffins. I survived for days at a time on free crisps and biscuits alone. I’m no longer the same person I was, just a few years later.

Not only this, but at 21 the human brain hasn't finished growing yet - especially the prefrontal cortex, where higher level thinking and decision-making take place. This region of the brain carries on developing into your mid-late twenties at the very least[1,2,3].

Lateral view of the brain, with the different lobes labelled
On average, brain maturity is reached at around 22, synaptic "pruning" in the prefrontal cortex continues into the twenties and white matter volumes peak in the late thirties. Image credit: BruceBlaus [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If 18-21 year olds are not fully developed, then might we be underestimating the decline of cognitive abilities in old age?

These things tend to be u- [or n-] shaped, Lily explains - developing cognition, reaching a peak of performance, then slowly declining - but in fact we really don't know the shape of these particular trajectories at all.

They could be any shape: up and down, very curvy, u- or n-shaped or a plateau most of the way. Different distinct personality types may show different trajectories and types of high level cognition may be correlated differently for each personality and show different spikes in skills. We do know a little about the shape of lower level cognition, such as working memory - the ability to hold things in mind - and for these skills, decline starts early: in the mid 30s rather than old age.

Although most of the lifespan studies that have been conducted so far suggest it is all downhill from 30, Lily and her colleagues hope to find that some cognitive functions do improve with age: those typically associated with decision-making and social skills rather than learning, which is most valuable during childhood.

Common misunderstandings

Brains can be quite plastic and change throughout our lives. Some bits are more plastic than others. We change our brain structure on a daily basis - look at how we lay down memories every day! You get these very frustrating articles in newspapers which say how computer games change our brains: yes! Everything changes our brains!

We don't yet have a full picture of adulthood, so we don't yet know to what extent adult cognition patterns vary between individuals. Not only is aging research very much out of context, but if there are changes in how we make decisions as we transition between early and mid adulthood, there might be major problems - adults in their midlife (those aged 30-50) tend to be the ones making all the biggest societal decisions, running businesses, making government policy, bringing up children and putting the most money into the economy. Midlife adults have immense social power and their decisions affect everybody.

Another interesting topic is the famed "Midlife Crisis". One common misunderstanding that has been upturned by recent research is the idea of a single life crisis period[4]. The quarter life crisis describes a wobble period in self-assurance that occurs between the late teens to early thirties, typically a result of the stress of adulthood[5]. A three quarter life crisis is brought on by a sense of purposeless upon retirement, coupled with changes in health, wellness, and future prospects of death. The three quarter crisis is less well reported than the quarter life crisis, and neither of these phenomena have been correlated to decision-making studies or the mental health challenges as depression. Although there is not much research into midlife specifically, we do know that it correlates with a decline in happiness and mental well being, which are reported to improve again later on[6,7]. And this trend is not only seen in humans, but also apes. It seems that apes have midlife crises too[8,9].

There are four big problems Lily's research hopes to explore: everyday decision making, risk taking and expectation of future regret, reward learning and social cognition, or ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. All of this research is new: it is a mystery whether there are any changes in these factors across the lifespan or how much cognitive skills influence lifestyle. Middle adulthood is typically associated with the death of parents, divorce and work stress, so whether midlife crises are intrinsically biological or triggered by life events is yet to be determined. There are lots of potentially interesting connections between the four problems, such as being good at seeing things from somebody else's point of view leads to making better every day health decisions because you care more about how others see you.

Or if, says Lily, I were really sensitive to the reward of eating chocolate, I might be really insensitive to risk factors such as the risk of developing a disease like diabetes. So whilst chocoholics might find it hard to explain to their GPs why they can't kick their addiction, it could actually be part of how they're wired: the long term reward of good health just isn't as tantalising as the immediate pleasure of that gently melting chocolate.

Collaborating with a software developer and a graphic designer, Lily is developing a free phone app for people to play games that explore their decision-making processes and automatically sends back data for the researchers to analyse. This kind of collaboration is as new in research as the topic, although they are not the first to use a phone app for psychological research: the Great Brain Experiment memory function app set the premise for this kind of work, when they explored memory, impulsivity, risk-taking and happiness, announcing their first findings in 2014.

When asked how many people she is hoping to include in the study, Lily replied "Thousands - as many as possible."

The free app will soon be downloadable from the OWL Birmingham website to play games on smartphones - now seemingly ubiquitous amongst adults. Whilst I was concerned that children and younger adults will be more drawn to the game, Lily showed me how the Great Brain Experiment had plenty of mid life participants: it looks like adults like playing games too. Perhaps, she suggested, not enough children were using phones to skew the statistics, and adults want to take part in scientific research. The real problem is that people are generally the busiest during this time in their lives - will they contribute enough data?

The problem is less significant than it might be: the team are doing research on many individuals across the population, rather than following a smaller number for a period of years in what is known as "longitudinal studies". Longitudinal studies are notoriously difficult as they require incentivising people to keep coming back throughout their lives: the dropout rate is high and research returns very slow in coming. If Lily’s work provides interesting results, however, longitudinal studies could be the next step.

Can you tell us some more about the methods you use to collect research?

Lily is using both questionnaires and games to collect research. The questionnaires include wellbeing, personality and lifestyle quizzes that then feed back to the participants about their strongest traits - exactly the kind of quick quizzes people enjoy online already. Amongst the games are challenges such as how speedy your vision is, and can you cheat a thief? - a decision making challenge that involves opening bank vaults before a thief can steal your points. In one, the participant searches for a flower amongst a cloud of other images designed to be more or less distracting depending on your sensitivity to social, risk or reward factors. In another, you have to take someone else's perspective and answer questions as you think they would answer them. To keep people feeling challenged, if you complete all the games and quizzes, you can additionally enter a monthly prize draw to win £100. To find out more, visit the OWL website or contact the team on facebook or twitter.

Screenshot of the 'Cheat the thief' game by OWL Birmingham.
Screenshot of the "Cheat the thief" game by OWL Birmingham. Image credit: OWL Birmingham

This article was written by TWDK's chemistry editor Rowena Fletcher-Wood, who has an MChem from Oxford University and a PhD in environmental materials chemistry from the University of Birmingham. Rowena can be found on twitter as @RowenaFW

why don't all references have links?

[1] Nico U. F. Dosenbach, et al. (2010) Prediction of Individual Brain Maturity Using fMRI. Science Vol. 329 no. 5997 pp. 1358-1361 DOI: 10.1126/science.1194144
[2] Petanjek, Zdravko et al. (2011) Extraordinary neoteny of synaptic spines in the human prefrontal cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108.32:13281-13286. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1105108108
[3] C. Lebel, et al. (2012) Diffusion tensor imaging of white matter tract evolution over the lifespan NeuroImage Volume 60, Issue 1, Pages 340–352 doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.11.094
[4] Oliver C. Robinson, and Gordon R. T. Wright. (2013) The prevalence, types and perceived outcomes of crisis episodes in early adulthood and midlife International Journal of Behavioral Development 31.5:407-416 doi: 10.1177/0165025413492464
[5] Suffering, Selfish, Slackers? Myths and Reality About Emerging Adults, JJ Arnett, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, January 2007, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 23-29
[6] David G. Blanchflower, Andrew J. Oswald. (2008) Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle? Social Science & Medicine Volume 66, Issue 8, Pages 1733–1749 doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.01.030
[7] Philippa Roxby. (2011) Why are Britons so gloomy in middle age? BBC (web)
[8] Alexander Weiss, et al. (2012) Evidence for a midlife crisis in great apes consistent with the U-shape in human well-being PNAS 109.49:19949–19952 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1212592109
[9] Jeremy Coles. (2012) Great apes may have 'mid-life crisis', a study suggests BBC news (web)