Archive for September, 2011

Managing Stress

September 28, 2011

There is an interesting article on managing stress in a recent Scientific American Mind.1 The author outlines four general competencies in managing stress: Practicing Relaxation Techniques, Managing Thoughts, Managing Sources of Stress, and Preventing Stress from Occurring. Relaxation Techniques have been covered in this Healthymemory Blog (enter “Relaxation Techniques” in the search block of this blog). They can range from simple visualization and breathing techniques to intensive methods of meditation. Managing thoughts is a matter of trying to control your thoughts and reinterpreting stressful situations into something less stressful. If you seek counseling for your stress issues, the therapist is likely to coach you in thought management techniques. Managing sources of stress is a matter of arranging your workspace and time to avoid stress. Preventing stress from occurring is the practice of avoiding, when possible, stressful situations, planning your day, keeping a list of things to do, and having a clear picture of how you’d like your life to proceed over the next few years.

The author conducted a study of how people managed stress. The research participants completed a survey (which is accessible at http://MyStressManagementSkills.com) asking them how stressed they were, how generally happy they were, and how much success they had had in their personal and professional lives. The author expected that relaxation techniques and thought management would be the two most effective methods of managing stress. To his surprise he found that stress management and stress prevention were the two most effective methods. Presumably this reflects the old adage, an ounce of prevention is worth of pound of cure. Although this is certainly true, it is also possible that relaxation and thought management techniques are both less well known and possibly, more difficult to practice. Of course, there is no reason not to practice all four techniques. And for those of us who are not that well organized, it is good that we have relaxation and thought management techniques to fall back on.

As a result of the study, the author offers six strategies for fighting stress before it starts.

  1. Seek and kill – (e.g., if your cell phone annoys you, get a new phone.)

  2. Commit to the positive – engage in healthy as opposed to self-destructive activities (e.g,, yoga)

  3. Be your own personal secretary – get organized.

  4. Immunize yourself – Through exercise, thought management, and the practice of daily relaxation techniques.

  5. Make a little plan – in the morning to prioritize and organize your activities for the day.

  6. Make a big plan – for the next few years of your life.

1Epstein, R. (2011). Fight the Frazzled Mind, Scientific American Mind, September/October, 30-35.

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Stress and Memory

September 25, 2011

The relationship between stress and memory is complex. A recent article1 provided a discussion of this relationship. It is believed that stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol can facilitate or impair memory. These hormones may affect memory by strengthening or weakening the connections between nerve cells. It is thought that specialized cell-adhesion molecules play a key role in the learning process at the cellular level. These proteins connect two nerve cells and stabilize the synapse between them enabling the transmission of signals from cell to cell. These cell-adhesion molecules play an important role in reestablishing contact between nerve cells. They also help enable the synapses to change strength in response to increased or decreased signal transmission.

Whether memory is facilitated or impaired depends on when the hormones were released. Marian Joels and her colleagues formulated the theory2 explaining this relationship. According to their theory stress facilitates memory only when it is experienced close in time as the event that needs to be remembered and when stress hormones activate the same systems as those activated by the event. So stress only aids memory “when convergence in time and space takes place.” The stress hormones need to be released during or immediately after the event to be remembered. If they are released too soon before the event or a considerable time after, they have the opposite effect.

So their explanation involves two phases. During the first phase, stress launches hormones and neurotransmitters that increase attention and strengthen connections between brain cells forming new memories. In the second phase the cortisol initiates a second process within an hour or so to the stressful event. This second process works to consolidate memories suppressing any information not associated with the stressful event.

Stress does not affect all types of memory. The effects described refer to episodic, or personal biographic memory. Memory of motor skills, such as riding a bicycle, typically do not suffer adverse effects from stress. Stress limits the focus of attention, often overlooking helpful or relevant options. It calls upon strong crystalized memory circuits, limiting access to new or creative options.

1Schmidt, M.V., & Schwabe, L. (2011). Splintered by Stress. Scientific American Mind, September/October, 22-29.

2Joels et al. (2006). Learning Under Stress: How Does It Work? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 152-158.

Is Texting Bad?

September 21, 2011

This post was motivated by an article in Newsweek1. According to a recent survey done by the National Endowment for the Arts, the proportion of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 who read a book not required at school or at work is now 50.7%. This is the lowest for any adult age group under 75. Twenty years ago this was 59%. The difference in reading ability between the 15 year-olds in the Shanghai district of China and those in the United States is as big as the gap between the U.S. and Serbia or Chile.

Another article2 reported that SAT reading scores had dropped to the lowest point in decades. Nationally the reading score for the Class of 2011was 497. Last year it was 500 and it was 530 in 1972, which was the last year for which these comparisons are possible. This article notes that more students are taking the test and this could account for some percentage of the loss.

Many variables are involved here. Texting is just one of them. Personally, I have difficulty understanding the popularity of texting. I don’t do it. I have a large number of text messages on my phone which are unread and which shall remain unread. The internet and the vast amount of information in cyberspace is another. Although there is much junk on the internet, there is also an enormous amount of useful information on substantive topics. I think the problem is that the junk is accessed much more frequently than the substantive content. By necessity, texting needs to be short. So, although it has the virtue of conciseness, it sacrifices depth and breadth. Moreover, I am led to believe that most of the content is trivial.

So there is much to be said about conventional books. Perhaps electronic books should be added. They also have the virtue of breadth and depth plus the added benefit of search functions, but I am not aware of any research on the topic. If you know of any such research, please point me to it.

I was amused by the recommendations made by the author of the Newsweek article. They were all from what is regarded as classical literature. I have nothing against the classics, but in today’s world to be a truly informed citizen, one needs to read books in both the natural and social sciences, mathematics and computing, business, economics, religion, and history, for perspective. Frankly, I find little time for fiction, but reading should also be done for recreational purposes. There is simply too much good to read. A healthy dosage of quality periodicals and newspapers is also needed.

1Ferguson, N. (2011). Newsweek, Texting Makes U Stupid. September 19, p. 11.

2Chandler, M.A. (2011). SAT reading scores drop to lowest point in decades, 14 September.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mnemonic Techniques for Cognitive Exercise

September 18, 2011

The Healthy Memory Blog is concerned with developing and maintaining a healthy memory throughout one’s lifespan. Mnemonic techniques are techniques that have been developed specifically for enhancing memory. So it should not be surprising that one of the blog categories is titled mnemonic techniques. It might be surprising that the category is relatively small and that postings to the mnemonic techniques are not that frequent. Mnemonic techniques are very old; they go back to the ancient Greeks at least, and probably further. At one time they played a key part of education, rhetoric and elocution. With the development of external storage media, what the Healthymemory Blog calls transactive memory, less and less reliance was placed on mnemonic techniques. So when paper became generally available, they became less commonly used. Now that we have electronic storage, some might argue that they have become irrelevant.

I would argue that they are not irrelevant and that it was a mistake to drop them from formal education. Although I could make that argument, I shall not make it in this blog post. Instead, I am going to argue that they provide a good form of cognitive exercise, one that promotes memory health. First of all, they obviously involve the memory circuits in the brain. They also require recoding and creativity. Imagery is typically involved, so both hemispheres of the brain are exercised.

Most of these mnemonic techniques are found in older posts. The reason that postings in this category are infrequent, is that practically all of these techniques have already been presented. That does not mean that simply reading these old posts will be sufficient. You need to do them conscientiously and then continue practicing on your own.

I would recommend by beginning with the Healthymemory Blog Post “The Method of Loci.” This is a classic mnemonic technique used by the ancients and also used in contemporary memory contests. Then I would do “The One Bun Rhyme Mnemonic” post. The next post would be “Paired Associates Learning: Concrete Concrete Pairs” The I would recommend “How to Memorize Abstract Information,” followed by “Paired Associates Learning: Concrete Abstract Pairs,” “Paired Associates Learning: Abstract Concrete Pairs,” and “Paired Associates Learning: Abstract Abstract Pairs.” Then I would recommend “Remembering the Names of People.” Then I would recommend “More on Recoding: Learning Foreign and Strange Vocabulary Words.”

Numbers are abstract and one of the most difficult types of information to remember. Here I recommend “Remembering Numbers,” “More on Remembering Numbers,” “Three Digit Numbers,” and “Remembering Even Larger Numbers.”

If you want to learn about memory competitions and how memory champs become memory champs I would recommend “Moonwalking with Einstein,” and “How the Memory Champs Do It.” Given the importance of preserving memory as we age, I think it would be a good idea to start memory competitions for Baby Boomers and Senior Citizens. I think this is an activity the AARP should seriously consider.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Few Words of Caution to My Fellow Baby Boomers

September 14, 2011

Although I enjoy writing the Healthymemory Blog, I am usually disappointed when I view the number of visits to what I regard as important posts. For example, the preceding posts on Alzheimer’s has not drawn the number of readers that I think these posts deserved. As a psychologist, I understand why these posts are not popular, but I am disappointed nevertheless. People are optimists, so they avoid unpleasant topics. Consider the situation in which we find ourselves. Issues regarding the environment, energy, and the national debt are ignored. People blame politicians, but we should not forget that it is these same people who elected these politicians. Politicians pander to voters by glossing over these issues and being optimistic; voters then vote for them.

Alzheimer’s is not a pleasant topic. The prospect of spending our golden years being unable to recall our past, where we are living, and barely remembering who we are. The Myth of Alzheimer’s is written by one of the foremost experts on Alzheimer’s. He warns us that a magic pill or cure is unlikely to be found, but he provides us with activities that can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. These posts should be of interest to a large number of baby boomers. Even if you are engaging in these risk reduction activities, you probably know fellow baby boomers who are not. Why not sent these posts to those people? And please keep reading the Healthymemory Blog so I can try to keep you up to date.

The Healthymemory Blog is dedicated to these activities. There are many from which to choose. It is important to choose activities that are enjoyable to do. In many ways these activities are similar to physical activity. Sometime I do not feel like going on a bike ride, but after doing so I feel exhilirated and am very glad that I went. I think you will find a similar result for some of the cognitive exercises presented in this blog.

A Call to Us Baby Boomers

September 11, 2011

Dr. Whitehouse is one of us; he is a Baby Boomer. In The Myth of Alzheimer’s he issues a call to action for us Baby Boomers.1 As an extra incentive, he states that studies have shown that engaging in politics and keeping apprised of world events may be protective against cognitive loss.

He recommends that we encourage our local politicians to make life-span aging a priority issue. To argue for a more equitable distribution between funding for the “cure” and for “care.’ Currently most of the funding goes for the search for a cure, and in Dr. Whitehouse’s informed opinion, a cure is a long way off if one is ever found. Federal and state labor policies should help expand the pool of front-line caregivers. Youth apprenticeship programs can be created in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in which high school students can experience hands-on learning in the workplace in conjunction with classroom instruction and to have mentored on-the-job learning in an eldercare setting. These programs can provide up-and-coming workers with the skills and competencies they will need to care for the growing number of elders in our society and provide them with the knowledge, insight, and real-world experience they will need to take care of us in the future.

He also recommends that we e-mail the leaders of our local Alzheimer’s disease chapters and express the belief that money raised for AD should be invested in care and prevention, and not just in the race for a cure that might never be forthcoming. Investing in caregiving creates a compassionate infrastructure in our communities that can last for generations. Investing in prevention allows more of us living longer with clearer minds. Children are included to ensure that they are provided a good start in their development.

We need to think about the communities of the future that will emerge to care for our elderly. Creative living arrangements such as co-ops for the elderly, inter-generational living spaces, environmentally sound assisted-living facilities that promote cognitive stimulation and inclusion in community need serious consideration. The following is a direct quote, “I am not sure we want or can afford too much institutional care for the frail elderly. If we can break down the barriers between those with dementing conditions and the healthy, and the young and other old, perhaps we can create living arrangements where people help each other across the cognitive and ageing divides. Cooperative group arrangements supported by architectural and environmental design may allow groups of mutually halping and helpful people to survive and thrive through cooperation arrangements. We are entering a challenging era as a human species. But humans are the most adaptable beings on the planet and I hope that we can rise to the challenges of the twenty-first century.2

We Baby Boomers can considered ourselves “called.”

1Whitehouse, P.J., & George, D. (2008). The Myth of Alzheimer’s. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

2Pages 277-278.

Alzheimer’s and Transactive Memory

September 7, 2011

According to the authors of The Myth of Alzheimer’s,technology and social interaction play an important role in mitigating its risk.1 Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should know that transactive memory includes the information stored in technological devices and in our fellow human beings. Hence transactive memory plays an important role in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s. Technology ranges from the simple book to the vast area of cyberspace. Dr. Whitehouse jokingly refers to the book as a multi-neurotransmitter lexical enhancement device. Both giving and receiving information from our fellow human beings is a healthy means of social interaction.

The remainder of this blog post lists online resources provided in The Myth of Alzheimer’s.

www.eldercare.gov provides information on community organizations offering programs that stimulate, thought, discussion, and personal connections.

www.themythofalzheimers.com is an online community that shares stories of dementia. The hope is that it will foster acknowledgment of the complexity and multiplicity of the many narratives of dementia and the stories of individual lives which make them up and that this will diminish the tyranny of dementia.

www.storycoprs.net records the life histories of elders and stores them in the Library of Congress.

www.duplexplanet.com is a site designed to portray the stories of elders who are in decline.

www.memorybridge.com is the site of an organization with a mission to foster intergenerational communication and facilitate relationships between younger persons and people with dementia

www.storycenter.org is the website of a nonprofit organization that assists young people and older adults in using tools of digital media to craft, record, share, and value stories of individuals and communities in ways that improve all our lives

www.elderssharethearts.org is a web site that affirms the role of elders as bearers of history and culture by using the power of the arts to transmit stories and life experiences throughout communities

www.alz.org is the website of the Alzheimer’s Association. There is a network of local chapters that provide education and support for people diagnosed with AD, their families, and caregivers. Chapters offer referrals to local resources and services, and sponsor support groups and educational programs. The site also offers online and print publications

http://adcs.ucsd.edu is the website of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS) which is the result of a cooperative agreement between the National Institute of Aging and the University of California at San Diego to advance the research in the development of drugs to treat AD

www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers is the website of the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center. It provides information on AD, caregiving, fact sheets and reports on research findings, a database of clinical trials, reading lists, and the Progress Report on Alzheimer’s Disease. It also provides referrals to local AD resources

www.caps4caregivers.org is the website for the Children of Aging Parents, a nonprofit organization that provides information and referrals for nursing homes, retirement communities, elder-law attorneys, adult-day-care centers, and state and county agencies. It also provides fact sheets on various topics, a bi-monthly newsletter, conferences and workshops, support group referrals and a speaker’s bureau

www.caregiver.org is the website for the Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA), a non-profit organizatin that offers support services for those caring for adults with AD, stroke, traumatic brain injuries, and other cognitive disorders. They also publish and Information Clearninghouse for FCA publications

www.nhpco.org is the website for the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), a nonprofit organization working to enhance the quality of life for individuals who are terminally ill and advocating for people in the final stage of life. They provide information and referral to local hospice services. The provide information on many topics including how to evaluate hospice services

www.nia.nih.gov is the website for the governments lead agency for research on AD. It offers information on health and aging, including an Age Page series, and the NIA Exercise Kit, which countains and eighty page exercise guide

www.nlm.nih.gov is the website for the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest medicl library with six million items (and growing), including books, journals, technical reports, manuscripts, microfilms, photographs, and images. A large searchable health informationo database of biomedical journals called MEDLINE/PubMed is accessible via the internet. A service called MEDLINEplus links the public to general information about AD and caregiving, plus many other sources of consumer health information. A searchable clinical trials database is located at

http://clinicaltrials.gov

www.wellspouse.org is the website of the Well Spouse Foundation, a nonprofit organizatin providing support to spouses and partners of the chronically ill and/or disabled. It maintains support groups, publishes a bimonthly newsletter, and helps organize letter writing program to help members deal with the effects of isolation.

1Whitehouse, P.J., & George, D. (2008). The Myth of Alzheimer’s. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What Can an Individual Do About Alzheimer’s?

September 4, 2011

According to the authors of They Myth of Alzheimer’s1, Alzheimer’s is not a disease but rather a conglomeration of debilitating effects that can occur during aging. They offer a prescription for successful aging across the life span. This blog post cannot do their prescription justice, but can only hit the main points.

They go into a good deal of detail about diet. Perhaps the best way to summarize their recommendations is to say what is good for the heart is good for the brain. So dietary recommendations for the heart also pertain to the brain. The same can be said for exercise. Exercise benefits both the heart and the brain.

Keeping stress to a minimum is another recommendation. Of course, stress is a part of modern life, so it is real and needs to be addressed. Physical exercise reduces stress. Walking, particularly in nature, is beneficial (see the Healthymemory Blog posts “Taking Advantage of Nature to Build a Healthy Memory,” “Restoring Attentional Resources,” and “More on Restoring Attentional Resources”). Yoga and Tai Chi are helpful, as are most types of meditation (See Healthymemory Blog posts, “Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind,” “Does Meditation Promote a Healthy Memory?” “Costly Gadgets or Software Are Not Required for a Healthy Memory,” “The Relaxation Response,”, and “Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability to Sustain Attention.” ). Avoiding individuals who are annoying or argumentative can also be helpful in reducing stress.

Remember that autopsies of people who showed no indication of cognitive decline revealed the same amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles that would confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. The most common explanation for these individuals is that they had built up cognitive reserves during their lifetime. The brain can use this reserve capacity to respond to damage that might occur from aging. These are the possible mechanisms offered by the authors.

“Building a higher synaptic volume of connections between neurons

Increasing cerebral blood flow

Developing resistance to the neurotoxic effects of excess levels of hormones like cortisol and other glucocorticoids

Promoting resistance against the depletion of neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine and dopamine, which occur with age

Recruiting other brain regions to perform tasks

Increasing cerebral flow and metabolism and conferring greater resistance to the neurotoxic effects of environmental toxins”2

The obvious question is how to accomplish this. Formal education is one answer. The higher the level of education, the greater the resistance to Alzheimer’s. Fortunately, returning to school is not required. Consider the following list of helpful activities: learning a new language, learning to play an instrument, playing board and card games, engaging in intellectually stimulating conversations, reading intellectually challenging books, picking up a new skill, keeping a notebook, or starting an online blog. This list is by no means exhaustive, but you should get the idea.

Building and maintaining social relationships is also beneficial to a healthy mind. The authors provide the following list of psychosocial benefits:

“Availability of emotional support

A source of information, guidance, and advice, diversion from the stresses of life and the day-to-day travails of aging

Self-esteem

A sense of coherence, purpose, usefulness, and meaning

An increased propensity to take care of yourself and seek out professionl help

A sense of intimacy and belonging

A belief in something beyond oneself”3

Depending on the job and profession, staying employed can also be beneficial. Research has found that countries with lower retirement ages also have lower ages for the onset of dementia (See the following Healthymemory Blog Posts, “Could the AARP Be Telling Us Not to Retire,” “Passing 65,” “Can Early Retirement Lead to Memory Decline,” and “Aging and Productivity.”). Retirement is not necessarily bad, provided that post-retirement activities provide the same mental and social stimulation that was provided in the workplace.

The importance of an optimistic or positive outlook is also important (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Positive Psychology”).

In short, the selection of the appropriate activities you pursue during your lifetime is the best means of reducing the risk of dementia. And you are never to old to start.

1Whitehouse, P.J., & George, D. (2008). The Myth of Alzheimer’s. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

2Pages 244-245.

3Pages 252-253.