Archive for January, 2011

Can Early Retirement Lead to Memory Decline?

January 30, 2011

An article in the SharpBrains Blog1 noted that an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives titled “Mental Retirement” stated that data from the United States, England and 11 other European countries suggested that the earlier people retire, the more quickly their memories decline.

Of course, the question to be asked here is “why?” A variety of possible causes come to mind. There is the social engagement and interaction that is found on most jobs. Or it could be the cognitive component of work. Or perhaps even the aerobic component of work. Or it could be the TV watching that increased subsequent to retirement.

None of these possibilities are mutually exclusive. They could all be working to different degrees depending on the job and the individual. The critical question is which of these activities have declined since retirement. So retirement per se is not the culprit, but certain changes that have resulted from the retirement.
Some people retire to second careers so that the nature and mix of the activities do not change significantly. Others become preoccupied with their hobbies and activities for which there was insufficient time to pursue when they were working. Unfortunately, others watch television and become couch potatoes and engage in minimal social activity.

The answer to the question posed in the title can be found in the title of the SharpBrains Blog Post “When Early Retirement Equals Mental Retirement and Memory Decline.” That is, if there is no mental retirement, then memory decline will be unlikely.

The Healthymemory Blog provides a means of preventing mental retirement through cognitive and social activity. Reading its blog postings provide information and data regarding human memory to include the effects of aging and the mitigation of these effects. It also provides information on mnemonic techniques, techniques specifically designed for improving memory. In addition to improving memory, these techniques provide mental exercise for both hemispheres of the brain. They also exercise creativity and recoding. Articles in the transactive memory category provide suggestions regarding how to use the internet not only to provide for mental activity, but also to achieve cognitive growth. An important component of transactive memory is social interaction. Although the Healthymemory Blog should be of special interest to baby boomers, it should have interest and value for all visitors.

1Http:// When Early Retirement Equals Mental Retirement and Memory Decline by Dr. Pascale Michelon 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Costly Gadgets or Software Not Required for a Healthy Memory

January 26, 2011

The Healthymemory “Blog has consistently maintained that costly equipment or software is not required for a healthy memory. Indeed, that is one reason why memory techniques are recommended. Even transactive memory does not require a computer. Conventional storage media like books, journals, and magazines will suffice as well as your fellow human beings. Meditation can also provides a less costly beneficial activity in terms of monetary expense, but the time demands can be substantial. Research1 by Posner and his colleagues indicates that beneficial meditation need not consume excessive amounts of time.

The training technique is called integrative body-mind training (IBMT; or integrative meditation). This technique integrates body relaxation, breathing adjustment, mental imagery and mindfulness training, There was also a coach who could help each participant increase the amount of mindfulness experienced to maximize the benefit of each practice session. Comfortable background music was also employed. Forty Chinese undergraduates took this training for five days. Each session lasted twenty minutes. An additional forty Chinese undergraduates were assigned to a control group that was given a form of relaxation training.

Both groups were given a battery of tests one week before the training and immediately after the final training session. The Attention Network Test (ANT) measures the ability to resolve conflicting demands upon attention, in other words, selective attention. Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrix provides a measure of fluid attention. Measures of mood were also taken. A mental arithmetic task was used to present a stress challenge followed by measures of cortisol and secretory IgA, which provide indications of the body physiological response to stress. The two groups did not differ on any of these tests before undergoing training.

After training, the IBMT group showed superior performance with respect to conflict resolution. The IBMT group also showed better regulation of emotion. The IBMT group also performed better on the Raven’s Test indicating improvement in fluid attention. Five days of IBMT training reduced the stress response to the mental challenge especially after an additional 20 minutes of practice.

All-in-all, these are most impressive results given the limited total amount of IBMT training.

1Tang, Y.Y., Yinghua, M., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., Lu, Q., Sui, S., Rothbart, M.K., Fan, M., & Posner, M.I.. (2007). Short-term Meditation Training Improves Attention and Self-Regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. October 23, 104(43): 17152:17156. Published online 2007 October 11. doi: 10.1073/pnas.07067678104. 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Fluid Intelligence and Working Memory

January 23, 2011

Regular readers of the Healthymemory Blog should be familiar with the distinction between fluid and crystalized intelligence. Crystalized intelligence basically is a matter of what you know. Your vocabulary, for instance, reflects your crystalized intelligence. On the other hand, fluid intelligence reflects how well you deal with novel situations or solve novel problems. Absent pathology, crystalized intelligence does not decline significantly when we age. Fluid intelligence does decline with age. At times, crystalized intelligence can compensate for fluid intelligence. But ways of stemming losses in fluid intelligence as we age represent an important research problem.

Working memory refers to the information we can work with in what can be regarded as consciousness. In other words, it represents what we commonly experience as thinking. Working memory capacity has been found to bear a strong relationship to fluid intelligence. Now working memory itself can be divided into two factors: they are the number of components that can be maintained in working memory and the quality of those components. Recent research1 has indicated the role played by each of these factors. In a very clever, but complicated, experiment researchers were able to ferret out the respective contribution of each of these factors. They discovered that it was the number, and not the quality of the representations that played the important role in fluid intelligence.

Suppose that you are trying to solve some problem. There are a number of factors and potential hypotheses that need to be considered. How many of these can you keep in working memory at the same time. Of course, you can use transactive memory (write them down) to record the items that you cannot keep in working memory at the same time, but to bring them into working memory you need to move something out of working memory. So it would seem to be advantageous to be able to keep as many factors in mind at the same time when exercising your fluid intelligence. Now the quality of these representations is not important. So there might be an item with such poor resolution that you cannot recall what it is, but you know that it exists. Here you can use transactive memory to increase the resolution of the item. The important consideration for fluid intelligence was that you remembered that there was something else that was important.

Some interesting questions come to my mind. One question is whether the capacity of working memory can be increased. If the answer is yes, then I would like to know whether this might forestall or prevent losses in fluid intelligence as we age. If anyone knows of any relevant research on these issues I would appreciate your leaving a comment.

1Fukuda, K. Vogel, E., Mayr, U., & Awh, E. (2010). Quantity Not Quality: The Relationship Between Fluid Intelligence and Working Memory Capacity. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 17, 673-679.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Google vs. Facebook

January 19, 2011

I found the news that Facebook had surpassed Google in usage quite depressing, particularly with respect to considerations regarding cognitive growth and development. Of course, it seems that everyone, myself included, is on Facebook. Included here are professional organizations and businesses. So the news should not be surprising; so why then do I find it depressing?
Let us compare and contrast the reasons for using Google against the reasons for using facebook. Someone who uses Google is usually trying to learn something. This might simply be information on a restaurant, or a movie, or a stock investment. Or someone might be looking for the definition of a word or trying to understanding a topic. Someone who is really interested in a topic might be using Google Scholar. Or someone might be trying to remember what the name of something is by searching for other things that remind you of the thing. It seems to me that these activities lead to cognitive growth, of course, some to deeper levels than others. And you can use Google to find people and build social relationships.

Perhaps it is this last activity where Facebook excels over Google. It is true hat one can build and renew social relationships, but it seems that most “friending” is done at a superficial level. Some people “friend” just to boast of the number of friends they have. I continually receive “friend” requests from people I don’t know and can find no reason for wanting to know. With the exception of genuine social relationships, I see little on Facebook that would foster cognitive growth or a healthy memory. When I review most of the postings on Facebook, I do not think that it would be any great loss if they were lost forever. Now the loss of a truly great search engine like Google would be catastrophic.

Of course, Myspace was once a top website that has declined seriously in popularity. I just looked at the top websites as of January 5, 2011 and saw that Google was back on top. Now was in 7th place. Wikipedia should be one of the premier websites for cognitive growth.

I would like to hear your opinions on this topic. Please submit your comments.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Flavonoids for a Healthy Memory

January 15, 2011

A recent article, “Your Brain on Blueberries1, extolled that benefits of flavonoids on a healthy memory. Blueberries happen to be the most visible food containing these valuable flavonoids. The article recounts a number of empirical studies that show that consumption of these flavonoids does result in improved memory, learning, and general cognitive function. Moreover, it is believed that flavonoids could slow age-related decline in cognitive function.

Flavonoids are powerful antioxidants protecting us from the cellular damage caused by free radicals, which are formed by our bodies during metabolism as well as by pollution, cigarette smoke and radiation. However, researchers now believe that flavanoids primarily affect cognition by interacting with proteins that are key to brain-cell structure and function.

To this point, scientists have identified more than 6,000 different flavonoids. They can be found in fruits and vegetables, cereal grains, cocoa, soy foods, tea, and wine. The table below shows the food sources for different flavonoid groups.

Flavonoid Group Food Sources
Flavonois Spinach, peppers, and onions
Flavones Parsley and celery
Flavonones Citris fruits
Flavonois Tea, cocoa and wine
Anthocyandins Berries, grapes, and wine
Isoflavones Soy foods such as tofu

 Some spices and herbs are also filled with flavonoids. Included here are sage, oregano, and thyme. Recent research has indicated that these compounds might also be beneficial to mood as well as our mental facilities.

Clearly there are many opportunities here to boost our memory, learning, and general cognitive function. Moreover, there is the potential of slowing age-related decline in cognitive function and of bneficial effects on mind. It would be foolish for us to not take advantage of these opportunities.

Of course, the Healthymemory Blog believes that there is no one magic bullet.  Cognitive growth should be a goal.  To this end learning new information and cognitive exercise are key components. 

1Franz, M. (2011). Scientific American Mind. January/February, 55-59.

Yet Another Justification for Writing This Blog

January 5, 2011

 Several blog posts back I wrote about an article in the Washington Post that contained errors and missed some important information (scroll down several posts and you’ll find it). I have found another example of misinformation contained in the popular press. This one is the cover article in Newsweek1. The article states “Blueberries and crossword puzzles aren’t going to do it. But as neuroscientists discover the mechanisms of intelligence, they are identifying what really works.” The author goes way beyond this and debunks other diets, drugs, and training regimens before getting to the big three that do work at the end of the article. The author uses an evaluation done by the National Institutes of Health. The citation for this study is not provided, however. The principal justification for this claim is that there are very few rigorous well-controlled studies. Now the gold standard for evaluations are randomized controlled trials. Unfortunately, randomized controlled trials frequently are neither feasible nor practical. For example, the studies documenting the health hazards of smoking are epidemiological. That is, they are correlational and subject to other interpretations. The famous statistician, Sir Ronald Fisher, who was also a heavy smoker, refused to accept the evidence against smoking because the data were correlational. So he refused to the accept the evidence. Now would not the health of our nation be in fine shape if data from randomized controlled trials had been required before taking actions to get people to stop smoking?

It is not generally understood that a failure to find that something does work is not proof that it does not work. This is a subtle, but important, distinction that is understood by people who know inferential statistics. There could be many reasons why an effect was not found to be statistically significant. It could be the result of insufficient statistical power, too small a sample, or a biased sample. It should also be realized that the conclusions apply to the group. It is quite possible that although the group as a whole did not benefit, that there were individuals in the group who did. This notion has increased acceptance due to the emergence of epigenetics. Moreover, the primary interest is in whether these benefits will extend well into old age. Conclusions here await longitudinal studies that have yet to be completed. And for we baby boomers, by the time these studies have been completed, it will be too late.

It is true that there is much hucksterism and that claims should be regarded skeptically. But there are also many legitimate researchers doing the best they can with the resources available. This Healthymemory Blog reviews such research. So if you are eating blueberries, doing puzzles, or doing something else you enjoy, keep doing it. If something is costing you money, you might want to be more cautious and perhaps switch to less costly activities.

Also, use your common sense in evaluating activities. The Healthymemory Blog recommends mnemonic techniques, and evidence is presented in this blog regarding the effectiveness of these techniques. But it is also known that mnemonic techniques require the learning of new information, creativity, and involve both hemispheres of the brain as well as information transfer across the corpus callosum. So there are good reasons to believe that they should foster a healthy memory.

The Newsweek article presents neuroscience as a new science that will tell us what really works. It appears that the NIH Study that the article was based on was written by neuroscientists with a pronounced disciplinary bias. Well neuroscience, like any vibrant science, is in a constant state of flux. When I was a graduate student, the notion of plasticity in the human nervous system was anathema. Had I been an advocate of plasticity in the human nervous system it is unlikely that would have been able to earn a Ph.D.

There are three items that do work according to the article. They are physical exercise, meditation, and some video games. This Healthymemory Blog has no argument with these conclusions. However, it is ironic that these conclusions are attributed to neuroscience. Now it is my turn to demonstrate my disciplinary bias. These conclusions could be based entirely on psychological research. Indeed, the data justifying these conclusions are necessarily performance data based on psychological studies. To be sure, neuroscience is helpful. It can provide theoretical ideas that are helpful. Imaging studies of the brain along with other physiological data can provide a warm fuzzy feeling to us psychologists. But the critical data are psychological and involve behavioral performance.

1Begley, S. (2011) Grow Your Mind: The Truth About How to Boost Your Brain’s Performance. Newsweek, January 10 & 17, 40-45. 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


January 3, 2011

Neurobics1 purports to do for the mind/brain what aerobics does for the cardio-pulmonary systems. It is very much in synch with the Healthymemory Blog. The authors are Chris Maslanka and David Owen. Maslanka is an experienced puzzler and puzzle creator. He sees puzzles and games as a way of stimulating creativity and of promoting healthy cognitive processes. Owen is an engineer who moved from the aerospace industry into scientific writing and journalism. They have collaborated on a splendid volume.

The first two chapters provide background for the book. They discuss the potential for building a better brain and a strategy for assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses of your brain.

Chapter 3, “Build Mental Muscle”, consists of logical puzzles. These involve common-sense reasoning, proceeding from information that is already known. The chapter provides strategies for solving these puzzles.

Chapter 4, “Find Yourself in Space”, consists of spatial puzzles. Tactics for solving these problems are presented.

Chapter 5, “Boost Your Word Power”, consists of verbal puzzles. Methods for solving these probems are discussed.

Chapter 6, “Figure It Out”, presents of numerical puzzles. The different types of numerical puzzles and their solutions are provided.

Chapter 7, “Hold That Thought”, presents memory puzzles along with memory techniques for dealing with them. Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should find many of the postings under Mnemonic Techniques helpful here.

Chapter 8, “Get Creative”, discusses means of promoting creativity and, of course, creative puzzles.

In each of the chapters each puzzle is labeled as a “Light Workout”, “Getting Harder”, or “Feel the Burn.” The second chapter recommends going through the “Light Workout” puzzles in each chapter to see how many you can solve. This should provide a indication of the relative strengths and weaknesses of your current cognitive functioning. The solutions to all of the puzzles are provided at the end of each chapter apart from the initial presentation of the puzzles (so there will be less of a temptation to cheat).

Chapter 9, “Brain Conditioning”, discusses diet and exercise issues that are relevant to a healthy brain.

The only criticism I have of this book is its lack of documentation. Although I agree with most of the claims made in the book, and could find the references for many of them, I still think it is incumbent on authors to provide as much documentation as is feasible. 

1Maslanka, C. & Owen, D. (2010). A Reader’s Digest Book. Quintet Publishing Limited.