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STARTUP NEUROSCIENCE WEEKLY

The Aging Brain of an Entrepreneur

Published 30 days ago • 11 min read

Introduction

Yesterday, I celebrated my 50th birthday, which prompted me to reflect on my 25-year journey as an entrepreneur. Over the years, I’ve undoubtedly experienced changes in my cognitive abilities. While my processing speed may have slightly declined, I’ve noticed improvements in recognizing patterns, predicting changes, and the ease at which I can transition between detailed analysis and big-picture thinking. These changes (and my birthday) sparked my curiosity about how the brain evolves with age and how understanding these changes can help entrepreneurs perform their best throughout their career.

The human brain undergoes a fascinating transformation throughout our lives. In our youth, we experience high levels of neuroplasticity - our brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections - enabling rapid learning and adaptation. But as we age, some cognitive functions like processing speed and memory retrieval tend to decline. Yet many cognitive abilities such as as crystallized intelligence - skills like pattern recognition, language comprehension, and accumulated knowledge - tend to improve. This evolution in cognitive function is deeply rooted in the neurobiology and neurochemistry of the brain.

Neuroplasticity is central to our experience. While it peaks in youth, it certainly doesn’t disappear with age. Engaging in continuous learning and challenging cognitive activities can maintain and even enhance neuroplasticity, promoting greater cognitive resilience. Additionally, the brain’s neurochemistry - specifically the balance of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine - plays a critical role in regulating mood, memory, and overall cognitive function. And lifestyle interventions such as diet, exercise, and stress management can positively influence these neurochemical pathways as well.

Understanding the neurobiological and neurochemical changes that occur with aging can be a true difference-maker. It empowers us to take proactive steps to support our brain health and cognitive function. By recognizing how our brains change, we can adopt strategies tailored to each life stage, optimizing our mental agility, creativity, and decision-making abilities. This knowledge can also demystify the aging process, reducing anxiety and fostering a more positive outlook on aging. Instead of viewing cognitive decline as inevitable, we can focus on the strengths that often improve with age, such as wisdom, experience-based intuition, and complex problem-solving skills. And it may even help us better understand why the data shows that the average age of a successfully-exited entrepreneur is in their mid-40s.

The 20s: Building a Robust Cognitive Foundation

In our 20s, we’re in an important phase of cognitive foundation-building that will serve us throughout our careers. This decade is marked by significant neuroplasticity, so a commitment to learning is critical at this stage of life. By frequently challenging our brain through novel and complex cognitive activities, young entrepreneurs enhance synaptic density and promote the creation of new synapses and neural pathways. This process is supported by increased levels of neurotrophins, proteins that aid in the survival and function of neurons. This not only fortifies our brain against early cognitive decline, but sets a strong foundation for innovative thinking and problem-solving skills essential for future entrepreneurial success.

Regular physical exercise is another pivotal strategy for entrepreneurs in their 20s, and one that should be continued throughout our life. The benefits of cardiovascular and resistance training activities extend far beyond physical health. Exercise enhances blood flow to our brain, promoting the delivery of oxygen and essential nutrients. More importantly, exercise stimulates neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons in our hippocampus, a region critical for memory and learning. The release of neurotrophins during physical activity even supports neuron survival and synaptic plasticity, further enhancing our cognitive capabilities.

The primary reason our brain experiences so much plasticity in our 20s is because our frontal lobes have yet to fully develop. As a result, young entrepreneurs do not have peak executive function - the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. This lack of executive function prevents us from managing impulsivity and assessing risk, key determinants in entrepreneurial outcomes. So if you’re wondering why the rate of startup failure among young, first-time founders is so high, consider that it may not be a factor of entrepreneurial potential, but rather a biological limitation resultant of young age and underdeveloped frontal lobes.

The 30s: Consolidating Cognitive Skills

In our 30s, entrepreneurs are in a pivotal decade where consolidating cognitive skills becomes crucial for maintaining and enhancing professional capabilities. This period is marked by the need to combat cognitive rigidity and ensure continued adaptability and problem-solving prowess. One effective strategy is skill diversification - learning new skills and gaining experiences outside of our core domain. Learning a new language, traveling abroad, or picking up a new hobby that enhances pattern learning are all effective ways to diversify our skill sets. By intentionally gaining new skills and experiences, we can promote neuroplasticity, helping us maintain cognitive flexibility and ensuring our brain remains agile and responsive to new challenges and opportunities. Engaging in activities outside our core expertise activates different neural networks, promoting the growth of new synaptic connections. This not only enhances our ability to think creatively and solve problems from multiple angles but also prepares us to adapt to the ever-evolving demands of the business world. By expanding our skill sets in this way, we can stay ahead of the curve, continuously innovate, and approach challenges with a fresh perspective.

Stress management techniques also play a critical role in optimizing cognitive function during this decade. The entrepreneurial journey is often fraught with stress, which, if not managed properly, can impair cognitive functions such as memory, decision-making, and concentration. This becomes more important with age as responsibilities increase, such as starting a family or raising our standard of living. High levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, can have detrimental effects on the brain, particularly in areas responsible for learning and memory. To mitigate these effects, we can incorporate various stress-management techniques into our daily routines. Mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation exercises are common recommendations. Entrepreneurs can also tap into valuable resources such as mentorship and peer groups (e.g., accelerators, incubators), attend events like FailCon, or seek therapeutic interventions. These practices reduce cortisol levels, protecting our brain from the harmful impacts of chronic stress. They also enhance our brain’s ability to focus and process information efficiently, promoting relaxation and reducing physiological responses to stress. These techniques improve emotional regulation, increase resilience, and foster a calmer, more balanced approach to handling the pressures of entrepreneurship.

The 40s: Enhancing Cognitive Efficiency

In our 40s, entrepreneurs face the challenge of natural reductions in processing speed and memory retrieval. This decade requires us to counteract these cognitive slowdowns to maintain peak performance. One effective strategy is cognitive training, targeting and improving key cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and processing speed. This could involve brain games like chess or poker, high cognitive load video games, or acquiring new hobbies like music, art, or dance. The key is to stay curious and try new things. These activities encourage the growth of new neural connections and strengthen existing ones. This targeted stimulation helps us maintain mental acuity, process information quickly, recall important details, and make decisions efficiently. Regular cognitive training not only mitigates the natural decline in cognitive speed but also reinforces our brain’s capacity to adapt and improve, which is essential for navigating the complex and dynamic landscape of entrepreneurship.

Social engagement is another crucial strategy for enhancing cognitive efficiency in our 40s. Maintaining an active social life is vital for mitigating the risk of cognitive decline. Social interactions, particularly with diverse groups (i.e., not just fellow entrepreneurs and business people), require our brain to engage in complex cognitive processes such as communication, emotional regulation, and empathy. These interactions stimulate multiple areas of our brain, keeping it active and engaged, which supports memory, attention, and executive function. Engaging with others in meaningful conversations, collaborative projects, and social gatherings encourages our brain to work harder, thereby maintaining its vitality. Moreover, social connections provide emotional support and reduce stress, both of which are crucial for preserving cognitive function. By regularly participating in social activities, we can enhance our cognitive resilience, emotional well-being, and overall brain health, ultimately improving our professional performance.

While our 40s are marked by a notable slowdown in cognitive performance, it is important to note that this decrease in speed is easily mitigated by our increased experience. It reminds me of what Michael Jordan said when he entered the NBA: that the professional game moved so fast. But over time, the game slowed down for him, and Jordan learned how to predict behaviors and ultimately dominate the game. The same can be said for entrepreneurs as they age. While their cognitive processing may slow, so does the game around them. This predictive capability and pattern recognition can far outweigh any biological decline, which is central to why most successful entrepreneurs tend to be in their mid-40s.

The 50s: Addressing Early Signs of Decline

In our 50s, entrepreneurs often begin to notice real signs of cognitive decline, making it crucial to adopt strategies that address these changes and maintain high levels of cognitive function. One effective approach is through nutritional adjustments. The importance of diet in brain health cannot be overstated, especially as neurotransmitter levels and neuronal function may start to decline. Diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and low in processed sugars can significantly reduce inflammation and support brain health. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, are vital for maintaining the fluidity of cell membranes in neurons, which is essential for efficient neurotransmitter function. Antioxidants, abundant in fruits and vegetables, help combat oxidative stress, which can damage neurons and impair cognitive function. These nutritional interventions help reduce inflammation and provide the necessary building blocks for neurotransmitters and neuronal repair. Chronic inflammation is a key contributor to cognitive decline, and a diet that minimizes inflammatory foods while emphasizing anti-inflammatory nutrients can help preserve brain function, structural integrity, and functional capabilities, thereby mitigating some of the early signs of cognitive decline.

Author’s Note: I take 5g of fish oil and 5g of creatine monohydrate daily to maintain cognitive function.

Another critical strategy for maintaining cognitive health in our 50s is engaging in professional development. Although ideally spanning all decades of life and career, it becomes increasingly important as we age because it helps combat knowledge stagnation and promotes mental agility. As processing speed naturally declines with age, continuously challenging our brain through learning and professional growth becomes essential. Enrolling in courses, attending workshops, and pursuing new certifications can stimulate our brain, encouraging neural growth and the formation of new synaptic connections. This lifelong learning helps us compensate for age-related declines in cognitive processing speed and memory by keeping the brain engaged and active. Continuous mental stimulation not only improves current cognitive function but also builds cognitive reserves that we can draw upon in the future.

The 60s & Beyond: Cognitive Maintenance and Neuroprotection

In our 60s and beyond, entrepreneurs face the challenge of maintaining cognitive health and neuroprotection. This requires a focused approach to ensure sustained cognitive health and overall well-being. Regular medical check-ups become paramount, as they allow for the early detection and management of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. The importance of these screenings cannot be overstated, as they help identify potential issues before they become severe, enabling early intervention strategies that can slow disease progression and reduce its impact on cognitive function. Perhaps more importantly, maintaining healthy lifestyle habits is the most effective way to protect our brains. Due to the greater flexibility afforded to us in later stages of life, we can more easily prioritize lifestyle interventions such as increased movement and exercise, nutrition management, supplementation, sleep hygiene, and, perhaps most importantly, play. Together, these approaches can help us maintain high levels of cognitive performance and well-being while many of our peers start to show signs of significant decline.

Community involvement is another critical strategy for preserving cognitive function and emotional health in later years. Active participation in community activities provides substantial mental stimulation and helps combat the risk of isolation, which can significantly exacerbate cognitive decline. Engaging with our communities as mentors, advisors, board members, and ecosystem leaders offers both cognitive and emotional benefits. Furthermore, engaging with younger people can be particularly beneficial, enabling us to participate in youthful discourse, stay abreast of innovation, and maintain a youthful, flexible mindset. Social interactions such as these help stimulate multiple brain regions involved in communication, empathy, and complex thought processes, reducing stress and promoting emotional well-being, both of which are crucial for cognitive health. This engagement can also lead to improved mood, enhanced motivation, and a greater sense of purpose, all of which contribute to maintaining cognitive vitality and entrepreneurial performance as we age.

In Summary

My journey as an entrepreneur over the past 25 years has taught me that understanding how our brains evolve with age is key to sustaining success. Each decade of life brings unique cognitive strengths and challenges: from building a robust foundation in our 20s, to skill diversification and stress management in our 30s, to enhancing cognitive efficiency in our 40s, to addressing early signs of decline in our 50s, and finally to maintaining neuroprotection in our 60s and beyond. By embracing continuous learning, lifestyle adjustments, and proactive cognitive strategies, we can harness the full potential of our ever-evolving brains, ensuring sustained cognitive health and peak performance throughout our careers.

As we mature and grow, let us celebrate that aging is not an entrepreneurial dead end, but rather an opportunity to refine our mental agility, creativity, and wisdom. Neuroscience shows that we have the power to shape our cognitive destiny, ensuring that we remain innovative, resilient, and successful at every stage of our lives. The aging entrepreneur’s brain should not be seen as a handicap but rather as an asset. By maintaining our brain health and resilience and leveraging our accumulated experiential knowledge, we can counterbalance the decline in cognitive processing and even outperform the youthful brain, which may be rich in speed but poor in experience.

References

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