Enhancing Cognitive Prowess

Frances Kolarek-150 wideBy Frances Kolarek —

Old songs, old favorites, we sing them over and over. And here I go again, because Richard A. Friedman, a widely published professor of clinical psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College is singing MY song.

In a recent article in The New York Times Sunday Review he extols the virtue — nay, the necessity — of exercising the mind and the body, as well as cultivating close social ties. A duet!

I tend to become flip when tackling weighty subjects — after all I want to be read and I try not to use words like hippocampus and ask questions like: “So can our brain be trained to enhance its own cognitive prowess?” Remember, this is a duet. Dr. Friedman gets to sing, too.

He refers to “the multibillion dollar brain training industry,” and concludes that research shows that brain training doesn’t make you smarter. It just makes you better at playing whatever game you pick or working whatever puzzle you’ve chosen. Okay. Suppose I don’t want to get any smarter. Suppose I just want to hang on to the smarts I’ve got? How about that, Doc? “Brain exercise might delay some of the effects of aging on the brain,” he said. I can live with that and will stick with acrostics.

Dr. Friedman tells us that, “starting at age 55, our hippocampus, a brain region critical to memory, shrinks 1 to 2 percent every year.” Lemme see. When I was 95, three years ago, had I lost something like half of my hippocampus? Golleee.

Speaking of the effects of aging on the brain, humor me. Just suppose that each one of the words and names we have stuffed in our brains in our 70-80-90-year-long lives was a marble — each marble different. Finding ourselves groping for a word could be compared with fishing for a specific marble — the pink one — among thousands of marbles. That takes time! It’s in there. TMI! It’s the scourge of the moment. Aha. Got it. Amnesia. That’s the pink marble I was looking for.

Back to Dr. Friedman who does not neglect exercising the body. “It turns out that physical exercise can also improve cognitive function and promote the growth and creation of neurons,” he writes, and adds: “A remarkable effect of exercise on the brain [is] an increase in size of the hippocampus that is linked with improved memory.” Whew. So maybe those miles of walking I did back in my 60s and 70s kept the old hippocampus from going completely downhill.

Now we consider our social networks — our ”contact with family, friends and other social activities.” They help us keep our smarts from drying up, too. Dr. Friedman writes: “There is strong epidemiologic evidence that people with richer social networks and engagement have a reduced rate of cognitive decline as they age.” So the next time a smarty-pants calls you a social butterfly, consider it a compliment. Hey! What are you doing for dinner tonight? Let’s get together.

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