Posts Tagged ‘Aging’

Mind Over Matter

August 30, 2018

The title of this post is the same as the title of a Feature article by David Robson in the 25 August 2018 issue of the New Scientist. The subtitle is: “You really can think yourself healthier and happier.” The article begins, “A positive mindset isn’t just mental—it can trigger physical changes making you fitter, slimmer, more energetic and less stressed. It will even help you live longer.”

Dr. Alia Crum told the global movers and shakers at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “Our minds aren’t passive observers simply observing reality as it is; our minds actually change reality. The reality we experience tomorrow is partly the product of the mindsets we hold today.” Dr. Crum heads the Mind & Body lab at Stanford University.

When she read about the placebo effect as a psychology student she had the following eureka moment: if our expectations can influence the effectiveness of a drug, perhaps something similar can happen in other situations also.

In the course of her research she and her fellow researchers have discovered that our mindset affects everything from our weight and fitness to the physical toll of insomnia and stress, even how well we age. Two people could have identical genes and lifestyles, but one can end up healthier than the other, thanks solely to their different thoughts.

There have been many healthy memory blog posts on placebos, so readers should know that placebos are inert pills used in most clinical drug trials. Participants are randomly divided into two groups: half taking the drug being tested, the control group taking an identical looking sugar pill. With no active ingredient, the placebo shouldn’t have any effects. Yet it typically results in measurable changes triggering the release of natural painkillers and lowering blood pressure, for example—all due to people’s expectations. Patients can even show these benefits when they know they are taking a placebo. There is also a nocebo effect. Expectations of a pill can also produce side effects such as nausea and skin rashes.

Crum was surprised that relatively little has been done to understand and harness the facts to improve health and well-being. Governments spend large amounts of money encouraging us to adopt healthier lifestyles. Crum wondered what if our efforts could be boosted or undermined by the very psychological processes that influence a drug’s efficacy through placebo and nocebo effects. She has spent the past decade investigating this possibility.

In one of her first experiments she examined the fitness of 84 hotel cleaners. She suspected that few of them would be aware of the sheer amount of exercise their job entails, and that this might prevent them from gaining the full benefits of that workout. To manipulate their mindsets, she gave half of them detailed information about the physical demands of their work—that their work hoovering burns 200 calories an hour—and told them that their activity met the US surgeon general’s exercise recommendations. One month later, despite reporting no change to their diet or activity outside work, the cleaners who received the information had lost about a kilogram each, and their average blood pressure had dropped from elevated to normal. The others showed no difference. This was a small study and Crum didn’t record actual behavior. She concedes, “It could be that they were putting slightly more oomph into making the beds.”

A follow-up study with a colleague, Octavia Zahrt, bolstered the idea that people’s expectations directly influence their body’s response to exercise. That study used data from health surveys monitoring more than 60,000 people. Zahrt found that the “perceived fitness” of the participants—how they felt compared to the average person—was a better predictor of their risk of mortality than the amount of time they said they spent exercising. Some of them wore accelerometers for part of the survey period. Still, after taking their actual physical activity into account, the influence of how they perceived fitness remained. Overall, people who took a more pessimistic view of their fitness were up to 71% more likely to die during the survey, compared with those who thought they were more active than average—regardless of their exercise routine.

The brain can directly control blood pressure through the autonomic nervous system. Crum suspects that a poor perception of your fitness could be triggering inflammation and the release of hormones such as cortisol, which might help determine how the body responds to stress. Her team is investigating possible mechanisms but, she says, it’s not too early to take advantage of these effects. Cruz’s advice is not to deceive yourself about your fitness, but to make sure that you don’t undervalue the exercise you do, either. Also avoid comparing yourself critically with your peers particularly if they are exceptionally sporty.

Crum has also documented other ways in which our mindset could be harming our health. A nocebo effect could undermine efforts to lose weight by dieting. In 2011, Crum offered volunteers a milkshake at her lab, then measured their levels of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin, which normally drops after a meal. Although everyone received the same shake, some were told it was healthy while others were led to believe they were having an indulgent treat. Those who thought they had drunk a low-calorie shake showed markedly higher levels of ghrelin afterwards, which left them feeling less full.

Ghrelin doesn’t affect appetite alone. By signaling food deprivation, the hormone also slows down metabolism, tipping the body towards storing fat rather than burning it. It makes evolutionary sense to reduce energy consumption when resources are scarce, but it is bad news when we are trying to lose weight. Crum says, “When people think they are eating healthily, that is associated with the sense of deprivation. And that mindset matters in shaping our physiological response. Instead, she suggest, dieters should cultivate a “mindset of indulgence,” savoring the texture and flavors of whatever they are eating.

Non dieters could also fall prey to this effect. When drinking a sugary beverage the brain doesn’t seem to recognize the liquid as a source of energy, and fails to adjust digestion accordingly so that we tend to eat more afterwords than if we have eaten solid food containing the same number of calories. We can subvert this effect by changing our expectation. Richard Mattes at Purdue University primed people to believe that the energy drink would solidify once it reached their stomach. As well as lowering gherkin levels, this increased the insulating response after consumption, leaving them feeling fuller. That was followed by a decrease in the daily energy they consumed.

It should not be forgotten that mind over matter is also important for aging. As has been reported in previous healthymemory posts; people who view aging positively live 7.5 years longer than those who associate it with frailty and senility. Negative perceptions are not merely the result of poor health; they can foreshadow symptoms by as much as 38 years.

Dr. Michael Merzenich’s Soft-Wired

August 1, 2016

Dr. Michael Merzenich is one of the key players in research into neuroplasticity.  “Soft-Wired” is the title of his book, with the sub-title “How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.  Dr. Merzenich has appeared in previous healtymemory blog posts.  Soft-wired implies that the brain can change for the better, but he also notes that it can change of the worse.

Dr. Merzenich writes well and presents good explanations of how the brain works, how it creates “you,”  and how the brain changes throughout one’s lifetime.   Included there are not only descriptions of normal aging, but also of injuries and diseases that cause problems.  However, the section on normal aging is quite depressing.  One is likely to give up and quit reading without the promise that this can be mitigated or corrected via neuroplasticity.

He does offer a description of daily activities that contribute to the Maintenance of a Healthy Brain.  He has a chapter devoted to how he has organized his life  so he can continue to thrive and grow.  He discusses navigating the modern world and taking a holistic approach to improving our lives.  The final chapter is titled, “Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life—Begin the Transformation to a New, Better Life Right Now.”

What I found to most most disappointing was his failure to discuss what was discussed in the healthymemoy blog post “Alzheimer’s and a Cognitive Reserve.”  Even if he was not aware of the research of Dr. David A. Bennet, and there is little excuse for his lack of awareness, he makes no mention of the fact frequently mentioned in the healthy memory blog that there have been many people whose brains were wreaked with the defining neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaque of Alzheimers, yet who never evidenced any behavioral or cognitive symptoms.

He does have a chapter titled, “Programs for Brain Rejuvenation and Brain Recovery—Features of Effective, Internet-Delivered, Neuroscience-Based Programs Designed to Grow, Rejuvenate, and Recover—Then Sustain—Brain Health.  Dr. Merzenich does have a company, Posit Science that develops and administers these programs.  HM believes in the claims he makes for these programs, and Dr. Merzenich does note that these programs are not mandatory for brain health.  There are many, centenarians included, who have died without exhibiting any of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s (even though they could have had the defining clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s).

Dr Merzenich does neglect the wisdom coming from the East.  Even though he offers perfuse complements about the Dalai Lama and has participated in the conferences at Mind and Life Institute in Dharmsala, India that have demonstrated the pronounced effects of meditation, he makes no mention of meditation.  Although he does not explicitly invoke mindfulness, some of his exercises are of the “being in the moment” type.  He does have a complementary single sentence on Tai Chi, but that’s it (Healthymemory readers should be expecting some health memory blog posts on Tai Chi later this year).

HM reiterates the importance of meditation and the fostering of growth mindsets for a healthy memory.  The extra ingredients of  GRIT including passion can be added. But it needs to be understood that these are a matter of lifestyle rather than taking specific training.  Even if one avails oneself of this online training, one must continue the training.  There are no short-term fixes for memory health.  Memory health is dependent on brain health and brain health is like body health, sometime that needs to be maintained throughout ones’ lifetime.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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.

As We Age Brainpower, Peaks in Different Ways

May 10, 2015

Research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analyzed the responses of more than 48,500 people who took online tests on the websites and  Researchers found the following:

On average, people think the fastest around age 18.

Short term memory peaks at around age 25.

Our ability to read’s people emotional states is generally best in our 40s and 50s.

“Crystalized Intelligence,” a measure of accumulated knowledge, doesn’t peak until people are in their late 60s or early 70s.  Remember that these results are “on average.”   There are individuals who will peak beyond these years and others who will die before they reach their potential peak.  Apparent slowness of mind is likely due to the vastly increased amount of information in memory (see the healthy memory blog post “The Myth of Cognitive Decline”). These results indicate that the older population represents a valuable resource that should not be ignored.

These results were reported in the Monitor on Psychology, May 2015, p. 23 and taken from Psychology Science, online, March 13.

Today I Enter the 70th Year of My Life

May 6, 2015

Meaning that today is my 69th birthday.  My first thought is, where has all the time gone?  Time not just flies, it flies supersonically.   I can use the marvelous time travel machine in my brain, my memory, and almost instantaneously travel back to when I was four years old or to any other specific time in my life.  The purpose of memory as a time travel machine is for us to use what we have experienced and learned in our pasts and project it into our future plans and actions.  It is here that memories can disappoint.  Too often I have failed to use information from my past in the future.  That is, I have failed to use lessons learned.  I have no idea how much longer I shall live.  It is highly doubtful that it will be for another 69 years.  I have already outlived my father and my brother.  My mother made it into here 100th year.  Unfortunately, she was plagued with dementia for the last several years of her life.

It is my goal to avoid dementia and to continue to grow cognitively the remaining years of my life.  Recent research, which will be posted in the next healthymemory blog post, found that “Crystalized Intelligence,” a measure of accumulated knowledge, doesn’t peak until people are in their late 60’s or 70’s.  Now these are average data.  There are individuals whose crystalized intelligence either peaks later or when they die.

So how can this potential be enhanced?  That is the question to which the healthymemory blog is devoted, and the first answer is not to wait.  Regardless of age, engage in the practices and advice of the healthymemory blog.  There is an overwhelming amount of advice and number of practices, so choose those with which you are compatible and continue to read this blog.

Perhaps first and foremost is the importance of ikigai.  Ikigai is a Japanese word, which roughly translated means “the reason to get up in the morning.”  In other words, have reasons for living.  Knowing your purpose(s) in life is important to your well being.  Research has indicated that having a regular job  decreases the probability of suffering from dementia.  Consequently, I continue working at my regular job.  Still I need to consider whether I am better off continuing at this job, and getting up extremely early in the morning, or pursuing other activities that might be more beneficial cognitively.  In doing so, I need to draw upon my time travel machine, my memory, to be sure that I am not ignoring any lessons learned when making my decision.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.

8 Myths of Aging

October 15, 2014

This post is in keeping with the theme of recent (and past) healthymemory posts and is also in keeping with this blog’s policy of dispelling myths. It is taken from the A Place for Mom Blog, “8 Myths of Aging Dispelled.” I have had nothing but pleasant experiences with the A Place for Mom organization. They were extremely helpful in assisting me in finding an appropriate place when we moved my mom to this area. They are the source of much useful information.

Here are the 8 myths.

  1. Aging is Depressing. “Contrary to the myth that aging is depressing, many studies find that seniors are among the happiest age group. Happiness levels by age follow a U-shaped curve, with self reported levels of happiness at their lowest at age 40 growing thereafter. In addition, those who think aging is depressing also believe that it makes seniors grumpier. People who are grumpy in their younger years will likely continue to be unhappyin their later years, but similarly, good natured people continue on a happy trajectory into old age. In other words, one’s attitude comes down to their individual personality, not an age group.

  2. Aging Leads to Loneliness Though social isolation can be a problem for senior, especially those who have limited ability, lack transportation, or who have recently lost a spouse, most seniors are able to stay socially engaged. Activities and visits with friends and familiy and at places such as the local senior center or a place of worship, also help seniors stay socially active and happy.

  3. Aging Dulls Wits and Inevitably Causes Dementia. While aging can create cognitive changes, older people may perform better in certain areas of intelligence and poorer in others. For example,while seniors may have slower reaction times or solve problems slower than younger adults, “mental capabilities that depend most heavily on accumulated knowledge and experience, like setting disputes and enlarging one’s vocabulary, clearly get better over time.” writes Patricia Cohen in the New York Times. What’s more, dementia is anything but inevitable. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, only 5% of those over 65 will develop dementia.

  4. Aging Makes You Unproductive. Though retired people have left the work force, they are hardly unproductive. They contribute countless hours to activities like helping with child-rearing and volunteering, which makes an enormous difference in society. In fact, a 2013 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that 24% of senior citizens report engaging in volunteering after retirement.

  5. Aging Makes You Less Creative. There are countless examples that dispel the myth that aging makes you less creative. In fact, many actually find their calling or achieve mastery in their later years. A great example is the immortal “Grandma Moses.” Anna Mary Robinson Moses was an ordinary woman who lived on a farm in upstate New York in the mid 1800s. After her husband passed away, Mrs. Moses (as she like to call herself) transitioned from farm work to a quieter life embroidering for fun and making delicious preserves for her now grown children. But, when arthritis made embroidering too painful, a friend suggested she try painting. Moses took to painting scenes of rural life, and even hung a few of her paintings in the local drugstore. Her paintings caught the eye of a prominent art collector who was passing through town and the rest is history. Her first one-woman art show was held in1940 when Moses was already 80-years-old. She became famous and was dubbed “Grandma Moses,” a name that stuck. She continues to paint until the age 101.

  6. Aging Makes You Unable to Adapt to New Situations. Older people who are not able to adapt to new situations, they are actually experts at adapting. By the time one has become a senior, they have had to adapt to innumerable changes and transitions in life, many of which could have certainly been challenging.. Seniors may be slower to change their opinions, but one of humanities greaters traits, adaptability, is generally retained as we grown old.

  7. Aging Erases Your Libido. Discussing the sex lives of seniors is largely taboo in our culture and has led to stereotypes that the elderly are sexless beings. This stereotype is harmful because it can cause seniors to have conflicted feelings or unnecessary guilt about their sexuality, while simultaneously causing younger people to hold misconceptions about aging and the elderly. As a state of Oregon document notes adroitly: “Research has found that sexual activity and enjoyment do not decrease with age. People with physical health, a sense of well-being and a willing partner re more likely to continue sexual relations. People who are bored with their partnes, mentall or physically tired, afraid of failure or overindulge in food or drink are unlikely to engage in sexual activity. These reasons do not differ a great deal when considering whether or no person will engage in sex at any age.”

  8. Aging Make You More Religious. Seniors have a higher rate of religious attendance than younger people, but this is a generational phenomenon rather than an aging phenomenon. If you regularly attended church growing up, you’re likely to continue to do so as you age. Today’s seniors haven’t become more religious with time. Instead they grew up in a time when more people went to church, which is whysenior re the most religious age group.

I find the way this last myth is handled amusing. It’s as if an explanation or excuse was needed to account for a higher degree of religiosity. It’s as if religion were a maladaptive practice.

I feel compelled to reiterate the healthymemory blog’s philosophy of continuing to pursue cognitive growth throughout the lifespan and not to become cognitive couch potatoes. We should continue to grow as we age. s

A Phrase That Should Be Considered Obscene

October 12, 2014

That phrase is “senior moment.” First of all, it is an instance of ageism, which is just as pernicious as racism or any of the other “isms.” But more importantly, it is inaccurate. Regular readers of the healthymemory blog post, should have immediately recognized this inaccuracy. This topic has been broached in many posts. Consider only the immediately preceding post, “You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks, “ and an earlier post “The Myth of Cognitive Decline. New neurons are continually being generated as we age, and the brain is rewiring itself to account for changes as we age. Any apparent slowness or difficulty in retrieving information is due to the massive amounts of information storage and learning that has occurred during these additional years.

Unfortunately, sometimes this phrase is used as a polite excuse for being slow to recall. Perhaps a substitute phrase should be “due to extreme amounts of information (or perhaps, wisdom, depending how strongly one wishes to push it) there has been a delay in accessing this information. I’ll get back with you when it becomes available.”

The worse use of the phrase is when it becomes a belief. It is easy to think that cognitive decline is inevitable and to accept it. Not only does such a belief become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it accelerates the rate of any decline. We do experience physical decline, but to use any noticeable decline as an excuse for giving up physical activity just increases the rate of decline. We must push ourselves to continue activities as we age.

Similarly, we must not decrease cognitive activities or avoid cognitive challenges as we age. There is reason to believe that we can not only slow the decline, but that we can also continue cognitive growth as we age. We must remain cognitively and socially active as we age and not beg off with the excuse of “senior moments.”

Remember that autopsies have revealed brains wracked with the neurofibril tangles and amyloid plaques that are regarded as the signatures for Alzheimer’s, but whose owners never evidenced any symptoms of Alzheimer’s when they were alive.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. 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.

You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

October 8, 2014

This post is based on “Old dog, new tricks” in The Scientific Guide to a Better You: New Scientist: The Collection. The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has been around for a long, long time. Too long, in fact, to hold under the new findings in science. Neurogenesis continues as long as we live, as well as the ability to learn new things.

I had long believed that there was a critical age for language acquisition. The idea was that we were designed to pick up languages naturally at an early age. However, after the onset of puberty, the task became more difficult. A study by Ellen Bialystok at York University in Toronto, Canada, disabused me of this notion. She studied US census records that detailed the linguistic skills of more than 2 million Hispanic and Chinese immigrants. If there had been a “critical period” for learning a second language in infancy should have created a sharp difference between those who changed country in early childhood and those who were uprooted in adolescence. There was no sharp difference. Rather there was a very gradual decline with age among immigrants. This could reflect differences in environment as well as adults’ rusty brain circuits. It is not that old dogs can’t learn, but rather a matter of old dogs not expending the effort to learn.

Gary Marcus, a psychologist devoted himself to learning how to play the guitar when he was 38. He wrote a book on his experience titled Guitar Zero. Initially his family laughed at him, but eventually they saw that he was that he was making progress. Typically adults are impatient when learning to play a new instrument. They do not want to put up with the frustration associated with this learning, something to which most students adapt.

Another study by Uang Zang at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis focused on the acquisition of foreign accents in adults. When the adults were given recordings that mimicked the exaggerated baby talk of cooing mothers, the adults progressed quite rapidly.

Volunteers visiting Virginia Penhune’s lab at Concordia University in Montreal learned to press keys in a certain sequence, the adult volunteers outperformed the younger volunteers.

Juggling is a challenging ask of hand-eye coordination. Nearly 1,000 volunteers from all age groups learned to juggle over six training sessions. Although the 60 to 80-year olds started slowly, they soon caught up with the 30-year-olds. At the end of the six session all adults were juggling more confidently than the 5 to 10 year olds.

Adults also tend to hamper progress with their own perfectionism, whereas children jump onto tasks while adults are agonizing over the mechanics of movement. Adults tend to conceptualize exactly what is required. Gabriele Wulf of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas says “Adults think so much more about what they are doing. Children just copy what they see.” Wulf’s work shows that we should focus on the outcome of our actions rather than on the intricacies of movement. Similarly overly rigid practice regimes can stifle long term learning. For example, it is better to shoot around the court, rather than trying to perfect a shot from a particular position. Even if one really feels compelled to do this, they should intersperse their shooting with shots from different positions on the court.

We also may have a tendency to lose confidence as we get older, and this can have a big impact on performance. In one study half the students were given a sham test on pitching a ball in which they were told that their performance was above average. They performed better on a test than a ground that had practiced but had not been given sham feedback.

One of the big problems we adults have is finding time to learn. We work, have errands and commitments to others including our families. However, babies have all the time in the world to learn. Food, drink, even their personal hygiene is taking care of for them. Gradually some obligations develop, but some of them regard learning and they still have gobs of time to learn. When we are freed of these obligations, we adults should not forget to take advantage of this additional time to learn new things and to engage in new pursuits.

To address the short amount of time that working adults have, the cognitive scientist Ed Cooke has developed a website, that works to integrate learning into the adult day and to take some of the pain out of testing.

It is also important to remember that exercise is important and the amount of exercise can be fairly modest. (See the healthymemory blog post, “To improve your memory, build you hippocampus.”)

Combined Effects of Interventions and Preventative Actions

June 12, 2014

Combined Effects of Interventions and Preventative Actions is another chapter in Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind by Greenwood and Parasuraman.  Unfortunately, this is a very short chapter, and the reason that this is a short chapter is that very little research has been done on this topic.  This is unfortunate as the few studies that have been done suggest that there are real benefits from combined interventions.  “The general conclusion is that lifestyle factors have greater beneficial effects on cognitive aging when they are jointly experienced than when individually experienced.”   Research has found additive effects of diet, exercise, and cognitive training.  Given this, the obvious question is why additional research into these areas has not been done.  Perhaps the obvious answer is that such research is expensive.

Here I need to put on my editorial cap.    It seems to me that it would be in the interest of the retirement home community to conduct their own research on this topic.  They are the ones best situated to conduct such research.  They already provide a community setting, and there are laws requiring certain activities be offered.  I have seen the progression my mother made from independent living to assisted living, and I have vowed not to follow this same route.  There are ads out the wazoo from many retirement communities about the paradise and freedoms their communities  offer.  I have  seen only one advertisement  for a program  nurturing the aging brain and mind.  That advertisement was for Home Care Asistance,,  that offers a program for keeping the mind sharp base on a Cognitive Therapeutics Method,  Although I have no data on the effectiveness of this program, it at least offers a program.   I want to see more advertisements offering programs to keep me cognitively engaged so that I can continue to pursue a growth mindset.  Moreover, I would like to see promises of on-going research, so that I might not only benefit but would also be contributing to new approaches.

It would be in the interest of at least the higher end communities to conduct such research, to offer such programs, and to make such commitments.  Absent any compelling commitments regarding ongoing programs and future research, I would never consider setting foot in any of these communities.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. 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.

A Neurocognitive Framework for Ameliorating Cognitive Aging

May 31, 2014

This post is taken from a chapter with the same name, “Ameliorating Cognitive Aging:  A Neurocognitive Framework”  in the book Nurturing the Older Brain and Mind  by Greenwood and Parasuraman.  Brain aging needs to be dealt with.  There is cortical shrinkage and there are white matter changes.  The shrinkage and white matter changes have a small effect on cognitive performance.  Neurotransmitter  dysfunction is a matter of more concern.  Then there are genetic factors.  First of all there is the genotype, then the gene expression from this genotype.  Although some individuals suffer from a genetic predisposition to dementia, these are not deterministic, but rather predispositions.  That is, given such and such experiences or external factors, the likelihood of dementia increases.  Then there are epigenetics, which determine how the genes are actuated.  Epigenetics are affected  by lifestyle and experiential factors such that favorable factors can enhance the probability of favorable genetic readouts.

Turning to the lifestyle and experiential factors, education, exercise, diet, learning and training, and combinations of these factors enhance the likelihood of good cognitive performance throughout one’s lifespan.   More details on these individual factors will be provided in subsequent healthymemory blog posts.

Then there is the matter of neuronal plasticity that includes neurogenesis, synaptogenesis, dendritic arborization, and network reorganization.   An example of network reorganization is the greater use of both hemispheres as we age.  When I was a graduate student I was taught that our nervous system was fixed and could not be modified when damaged or was damaged to aging.  Fortunately, what I was taught as a graduate student has been found to be woefully in error.  These processes can occur well into old age.  But they need to be activated by new learning and experiences for them to occur.

Next there is cognitive plasticity.  Top-down processing strategies can be used to make better use of our accumulated knowledge.  Then there are our well-developed prefrontal lobes for effective executive functioning.

I have often written of the importance of building a cognitive reserve.  Although advice was provided as to how to build one’s cognitive reserve, Greenwood and Parasuraman have provided the first neurocognitive framework to explain how this occurs.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. 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.

Passing 68

May 6, 2014

I am 68 today, and I am still gainfully employed.  Although I could retire, the reason that I’m not retired is that my foremost goal is to have a healthy memory.  Data show a correlation between the age of retirement and the age of onset for Alzheimer’s.  The reason for this is that my job has me engage in the activities that foster the building of a cognitive reserve.  For more information on the cognitive reserve go to the healthy memory blog post “REST, Epigenesis, Neuroplasticity, Cognitive Reserve, and Alzheimer’s.”  Moreover, there is also the incentive of a paycheck.  And I still have the satisfaction of contributing to society.

The only factor that would make me consider moving from my current job was if there was a different position or activity in which I thought I could make a larger contribution to society.  I shall extend every effort to continue to be cognitively, socially, and physically engaged.  As long as I live I shall have a growth mindset.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to aging.  My parents, my brother, and all my aunts and uncles have passed away.  I have also lost contact with most of my cousins.  I had been planning on attending my 50th High School Class Reunion this June, but four of my closest friends in that class have already passed away.  I fear that attending this reunion would be too painful.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. 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.


What Einstein’s Brain Tells Us

November 19, 2013

Fortunately Einstein’s heirs allowed for the removal of his brain for study after his demise. As the title of the Washington Post Article indicates “Einstein’s brain was more connected than most. His large corpus callosum, which helps the left and right hemispheres work together, is part of what made the physicist so creative, researchers say.”1 The corpus callosum runs nearly the full length of the brain from behind the forehead to the nape of the neck. Its dense network of neural fibers carries electrical signals between the two hemispheres that make brain regions with very different functions work together.

Peter U. Tse is a neuroscientist at Dartmouth College who studies the underpinnings of artistic, scientific, and mathematical creativity. He argues that “the ways in which we use our brains – and the consistency with which we do so – may matter more as we age.” “He noted that, while Einstein’s brain was much better connected than those of similarly aged men, it was not so different than those of young and healthy controls.”

“That might reflect the fact that Einstein continue to exercise his brain strenuously, forestalling much of the atrophy that comes with age.”

Although we are not Einsteins, it is the continuing theme of the healthmemory blog that we need to continue to exercise our brains strenuously.

1(2013) Healy, M. The Washingtonpost, 13 October, A4.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2013. 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.

Another Quiz

July 3, 2013

There will be a brief hiatus in new postings to the healthymemory blog. I believe that there are already sufficient postings (more than 400) to interest readers in the interim. Here is a quiz, should you wish to challenge yourself. Remember the search block on this blog when you are looking for topics of interest or trying to finds answers to the quiz. There is also an earlier quiz, enter “quiz” into the search block, should you want to test yourself further.

  1. What are the five supermemes that threaten the collapse of civilization according to Costa





      1. What is the importance of ikiga?

      2. What is the best means of preventing or mitigating dementia?

      3. What is crystalized intelligence?

      4. What is the distinction between System 1 and System 2 processing?

      5. What is a paraprosdokian?

      6. What is meant by mindfulness?

      7. What is hyperpartisanship and how can it be reduced?

      8. How can transactive memory aid prospective memory?

      9. What is the relationship between meditation and attention?

      10. Why is attention important?

      11. What is the One Bun Rhyme Mnemonic?

      12. How can you remember historical dates and appointments?

      13. What are the differences between Congressman Tim Ryan and Congressman Paul Ryan?

        1. Can false memories be implanted in memory?

        2. Why is speaking on a cell phone with your hands free still dangerous?

        3. What is the relationship between the average retirement age of a country and the onset of dementia?

        4. What tragedy has resulted from a failure in prospective memory?

        5. What is the Distinctiveness Heuristic?

        6. How does incubation relate to creativity?

        7. How can you boost your brain?

        8. What memory technique was developed by Pierre Herigone”

Aging and Decline: A Self-fulfilling Prophecy?

March 24, 2013

An article in the Alexandria/Arlington Local Living insert of the March 14 Washington Post titled “Getting Stronger After a Century” inspired this healthymemory blog post. This article is about a man who did not start working out until he was 98. He is now 102 and is “able to curl 40 pounds, work out vigorously on a rowing machine and deftly pluck bouncing eight-pound kettle balls from the air with the hand-eye coordination of a much younger man.” The article later states that experts say that many people don’t realize that problems they associate with old age actually are caused by poor fitness. In other words, the experts are saying that the poor fitness aging individuals experience is, in large part, a self-fulfilling prophecy. People believe that this physical decline is a natural part of aging and start declining. If people would just start exercising, they could preclude or remediate many of these problems.

I believe that the same problem occurs with respect to mental fitness. People believe that mental decline is a natural part of aging. There are data showing that the average retirement ages of countries and the age of the onset of dementia for these same countries are correlated. That is, the earlier the retirement age, the earlier the onset of dementia. It isn’t retirement per se that is responsible, but rather the decline in social interactions, cognitive activities, and challenges (problems) that result in dementia.

So if you are retired you need to keep up social interactions and cognitive activity. Use your computer and keep learning new things. Read and take classes. And you don’t want to wait until you retire to start these activities. They should be lifelong activities. Nevertheless, it is never to late to start. Consider the gentleman in the article who did not start exercising until he was 98.

As the title of this blog implies, the healthymemory blog is devoted to healthy memories. It is constantly providing new, worthwhile information for your consideration. The category of transactive memory considers how you can employ others and technology for cognitive growth and health. The mnemonic techniques category includes articles on techniques that not only improve your memory, but also provide valuable cognitive exercise. Articles on mindfulness and meditation can also be found under this category. The Human Memory: Theory and Data includes posts on this very interesting and important topic. This is a good area in which to grow cognitively.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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.

Am I An Old Fuddy Duddy?

May 27, 2012

Personally, I am very large on technology. In my view, technology, properly developed and applied, can leverage human potential. That is one of the underlying views of the Healthymemory Blog, that technology can grow and enhance human potential (see the “Transactive Memory” category). Some of my primary interests and supposed areas of expertise are in human factors and engineering psychology. These areas are concerned with the interactions of humans with technology and in how technology can be designed so it can achieve maximum use. Had anyone asked me many years ago if hand held devices would become popular, I would have opined that they would not, because the keyboards and displays would be way too small. It’s a good thing that no one ever asked me!

I am thrilled by certain types of technology. Email is one of my favorites. In my world, there is no protocol involving email other than not to spam or otherwise annoy people with messages that are not of interest to them. So they can be short or long and can be sent at anytime. You do not have to be concerned about the time, because the recipient can view them at leisure. When you send an email there can be no question of what you wrote and when sent it. Of course, there is no guarantee that the recipient either read or understood your message. A few years ago I learned from a young lady that my protocol was out of date. If a message was short, email was inappropriate, whereas a text message was. I still do not understand why there was a need to complicate matters.

I don’t understand texting. I never text and I never read texts. When I receive a text message on my phone that I have received x number of text messages and asked if I want to read them now, I invariably respond “no.” These messages will never be read. I find inputting a text to be a nuisance. If time is of the essence, then I’ll phone. Otherwise, I much prefer waiting until I can get to a computer with a decent keyboard to texting.

So I have admitted to having a mobile phone. And I do like them, but mostly when I’m traveling. They most definitely should not be used when we are driving (see the Healthymemory Blog post “Phoning and Driving is as Dangerous as Drinking and Driving”), but I must confess to using the phone briefly while driving in certain situations. Although I have a mobile phone, it is not one of the smart ones. It is a rare circumstance when I have not gathered all the information I need before leaving my residence to go or do something. I was awarded one of those navigation devices for so many years of service with my company, but I have not installed it and my wife has no interest in my installing it. I like to have my directions in advance, with an accompanying map in the event that things go wrong. I don’t like getting my directions on the fly, particularly in the dynamic (or more accurately, chaotic) traffic in which I usually drive. Perhaps I am adapting to a diminished ability to multitask as I age. But even with a younger person at the wheel, I am not comfortable as a passenger when the driver is consulting the navigation gizmo in rapidly changing traffic. I suspect that some traffic accidents occur as a result of drivers interacting with their navigation devices.

There is a popular notion that due to the prevalence of all these devices, the brains of young people have been rewired for multitasking. Although young people might be more prone to multitasking, they do pay a cognitive cost (see the Healthymemory Blog post, “The Dangers of Multitasking”). It is important to realize that we are very poor at gauging our ability to multitask. There is an inverse relationship between the perceived ability to multitask and actual multitasking performance. So the unfortunate tendency is that those who are poorest at it, tend to do more of it.

To return to the title of this post, “Am I An Old Fuddy Duddy?” Am I missing out on technology that is of potential value to me? Or am I adapting my use of technology to my waning attentional abilities? Please enter your comments, recommendations, and advice.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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.

Passing 66

May 23, 2012

A couple of weeks back I passed my 66th birthday. This occasion caused me to reflect on the retirement advertisements I see on TV. There is one where a couple is flying in a private plane to a lakeside villa as they view whales playing on the water. The underlying theme here is with adequate retirement funds, this is what your retirement will be; with the proper retirement plan, this can be yours.

The problem is that there are two factors critical to retirement planning that are unknown. The first is how long we will live. We might expire later today or we could live to be well into our hundreds given future medical advances. We also don’t know what will happen to our investments. The regulations that were made to our most recent financial catastrophic were fairly modest. There is also the prospect of the financial system collapsing as a result of cyberwarfare. Then there is also the prospect of a Coronal Mass Ejection wiping out all the electronic systems for over a decade. Now there is the idea of a bucket list that includes everything we want to do before expiring. This can work given adequate resources, our living long enough, and the absence of cataclysmic financial events.

My least favorite advertisement is of someone waking up on the first day of retirement joyful that they did not have to get up and that they have nothing to do. I’ll grant that person, one joyful day, perhaps two. But to live life without meaningful challenges is to increase the likelihood of dementia and to put one foot in the grave. There is a Japanese word Ikigai which roughly translated as “the reason for which we wake up in the morning” (see the Healthymemory Blog post “The Importance of Ikigai”. Countries that have lower retirement ages tend also to have lower ages for the onset of dementia. If you retire from work it is important to have activities that keep you both physically and mentally active.

A Healthymemory blog reader emailed me an article “Working 9 to 5 – at 75”1 (thank you Healthymemory Blog reader). There was a story about a 73 year old who was commuting 90 miles each way, and enjoying it. The article states that “…working well into one’s seventh decade is a scenario that has become—seemingly overnight—relatively commonplace.” Although financial pressures seemed to be the major motivating factor, they were enjoying the work they were doing. It was fulfilling. It provided Ikigai. It is also likely extending their lifespans and extending or warding off dementia.

So passing 66 is not particularly significant. I am continuing in my job. The best means of surviving a financial collapse is by having and keeping a job. More importantly, it is keeping me mentally and socially engaged, but I do need to do more physical exercise. Regardless of my employment status, I plan to stay mentally and physically active.


Age-Proof Your Brain

February 15, 2012

Age-Proof Your Brain: 10 Easy Ways to Keep Your Mind Fit Forever is a recent article in AARP The Magazine.1 Articles like this are summarized periodically in the healthymemory blog. There are many, many things you can do to age proof your brain, but articles like these are helpful in suggesting a manageable handful from which to choose (“31 Ways to Get Smarter in 2012” was a similar posting earlier this year). Some of the ways presented in the AARP article do not readily fall into specific healthymemory blog categories, although most have been mentioned in passing in healthymemory blog posts.

Finding your purpose is a general recommendation strongly endorsed by the healthymemory blog. The AARP article cites a study done at the Rush University Medical Center of more than 950 older adults. The study ran for seven years and it was found that participants who approached life with clear intentions and goals at the start of the study were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease over the following seven years.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is implicit, but not usually specifically mentioned in healthymemory blog posts. It is important to Reduce your risks. Chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension are associated with dementia. Diabetes approximately doubles the risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. So it is important to follow doctor’s orders regarding diet, exercise and taking prescribed medications on schedule.

It is important to Check for vitamin deficiences. Vitamin deficiences, especially vitamin B12 can also affect brain vitality. Research from Rush University Medical Center found that older adults at risk of vitamin B12 deficiencies, had smaller brains and scored lowest on tests measuring thinking, reasoning and memory.

Diet is another topic discussed infrequently in the healthymemory blog, but as the AARP article notes “Your brain enjoys spices as much as your taste buds do. Herbs and spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, oregano, basil, parsley, ginger and vanilla are high in antioxidants.” Antioxidants are important to brain health. Curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric is common in Indian curries. Indians have a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s. One theory is that curcumin bonds to amyloid plaques that accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Animal studies have shown that curcumin reduces amyloid plaques and lowers inflammation levels. A study with humans found that people who ate curried foods often had higher scores on standard cognitive tests.

Another diet recommendation is to Eat like a Greek. The Mediterranean Diet rich in fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and beans reduced Alzheimer’s risk by 34 to 48 percent in a study done by Columbia University. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish are important in heart health and are suspected of also being important for brain health. Generally speaking, what is healthy for the heart is healthy for the brain.

Exercise is another activity that is good for both heart and brain. According to the AARP article, higher exercise levels can reduce dementia risk by 30 to 40 percent compared to low activity levels. People who exercise regularly also tend to have better cognition and memory than inactive people. Exercise helps your hippocampi, subdcortical memory structures well known to readers of the healthymemory blog (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus, and do a search using the term “Hippocampus”.) Experts recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate activity, although as little as 15 minutes of exercise three times a week can be helpful. So Get moving.

And Pump some iron. Older women participating in a yearlong weight-training program did 13 percent better on tests of cognitive function that did a group of women who did balance and toning exercises. According to Tereas Liu-Ambrose, “Resistance training may increase the levels of growth factors in the brain such as IGFI, which nourish and protect nerve cells.”

Say “Omm” refers to meditation. Meditation techniques can usually be found under the healthymemory blog post category “Mnemonic Techniques.” The AARP article discusses a study of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). MBSR involves focusing one’s attention on sensations, feelings, and states of mindfulness. This has been shown to reduce harmful stress hormones. At the end of an eight week study MRI scans of participants’ brains showed that the density of gray matter in the hippocampus increased significantly in the MBSR group, compared to a control group. Studies have found that other types of meditation have also been beneficial. Search the healthymemory blog on “meditation” to find related healthymemory blog posts.

The remaining two recommendations fall under the healthymemory blog category “Ttansactive Memory.” Get a (social) life means interact with your fellow human beings for a healthy memory. The AARP articles mentions a University of Michigan Study in which research participants did better on tests of short-term memory after just 10 minutes of conversation with another person. There are two types of transactive memory. One type refers to the memories of our fellow humans, and the practice of seeking them out and swapping information between our swapping memories is beneficial.

Seek out new skills can involve both types of transactive memory: human and technological. So learning new things from our fellow humans, as well as from periodicals, books, and the internet is beneficial to our brains and our memories. The important point is to continue to grow cognitively and to not just do things that you routinely do.


Disabusing the Myth that Older People Do Not Have New Ideas

January 3, 2012

A valuable article1 by Vivek Wadhwa in the Washington Post argued against the common misconception that the best entrepreneurs are young. The article began with a quote from the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla who said, “People under 35 are the people who make change happen. People over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.” This is a common misconception.

Wadhwa counters this misconception with research of his own. He and his research team explored the backgrounds of 652 chief executives and heads of product development in 502 successful engineering and technology companies established from 1995 to 2005. The median age of successful founders was 39. Twice as many founder were older than 50 as were younger than 25, and there were twice as many over 60 as under 20. Another researcher, Dane Stangler, analyzing Kaufman Firm Survey Data and the Kaufman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity found that the average age of U.S. Entrepreneurs is rising, and that the highest rate of entprepreneurial activity shifted to the 55 to 64 age group.

Wadhwa provided further evidence that people do not stop being creative when they reach middle age. Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod when he was 44, discovered, electricity at 46, helped draft the Declaration of Independence at 70, and invented bifocals after that. Henry Ford introduced the Model T when he was 45. Sam Walton built Wal-Mart in his mid-40s. Ray Kroc built McDonald’s in his early 50s. Ray Kurzweil published “The Singularity is Near” in his 50’s. Alfred Hitchcock directed “Vertigo” at 59. The architectural masterpiece, Fallingwater, was built by Frank Lloyd Wright when he was 68. Wadwha goes on to note that the most significant innovations of the highly celebrated Steve Jobs, the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, and iPad, came after he was 45.

Reader’s of the Healthymemory Blog should be aware that these examples of successful aging are due to their continuing to engage their attentional and System Two processes (See the Healthymemory Blog Posts “Review of the Washington Post’s The Aging Brain, More on Attention and Cognitive Control,”, “Passing 65,” “Memory and Aging,” and The Two System View of Cognition.” ) (Note that clicking on the hyperlinks will take you to other articles and not the Healthymemory Blog Posts.  To read the posts, enter the title in the blogs Search Box.)

1Wahwha, V. (2011). Who says the best entrepreneurs are young? Not the numbers. Washington Post, 11 December, G4.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. 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.

The Adult Brain

November 30, 2011

The brain reaches its maximum size (by weight) in early adult life.1 It decreases by about ten percent over the remainder of the life span. It ways about three pounds and contains about one hundred billion brain cells (neurons). There are about a million billion connections (synapses) linking those cells together. As a person ages the number of synapses generally decreases, but the commonly cited figure of 50,000 cells a day is no longer believed by most neuroscientists. The loss of neurons that does occur is not evenly distributed across the brain. There is little or no significant loss in many cortical regions used in normal cognition.

More important than the loss of neurons and the thinning of synaptic connections that occurs as we age, is the loss of cells from cluster of cells (nuclei) about the size of a pinhead located in the brain stem. This brain stem is about the length of an adult forefinger. The neuroscientist Paul Coleman calls these nuclei “juice machines.” They send ascending fanlike projections to many parts of the cortex. The brains neurotransmitters travel along these projections. Reductions in levels of these neurotransmitters leads to many of the infirmities that inflict us as we age: memory loss, depression, decrease in overall mental sharpness, and inefficient mental processing. Fortunately these infirmities can be improved by drugs that increase these neurotransmitters.

Although the loss of neurons occurs normally with aging, this loss can be compensated for by increases in the networking capacity of the remaining neurons. Although the number of neurons decreases from birth onward, fewer but stronger and more enduring connections form among the remaining neurons (see the healthymemory blog posts “HAROLD,” “Is Dementia an Inevitable Part of Aging,” and “Hope for an Aging Population: STAC”).

“This capacity to compensate for the loss of its components makes the brain the only known structure in the universe that works more efficiently despite a loss of its components. To this extent the brain is unique among both biological and mechanical structures: over the years it doesn’t ‘wear out’.”2

1Much of this blog post is abstracted from Restak, R. (2009).Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. New York: Riverhead Books.

2Ibid. p.21

The Second Half of Life

July 17, 2011

Gene Cohen has two medical specialties, psychiatry and gerontology. He has formulated his own depiction of the second half of life. This blog post provides a brief overview of Cohen’s depiction. It is taken from his book, The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain, which I highly recommend.

According to Cohen the second half of life consists of the following four phases: Phase I is reevaluation that occurs between the mid-thirties to the mid sixties, but most frequently between the early forties to late fifties. Phase II is liberation that occurs from the mid fifties to mid seventies, but most frequently during ones late fifties to early seventies. Phase III is recapitulation that occurs from the late sixties to the nineties, but most frequently during the late sixties through the eighties. Phase IV is continuation(encore) that runs from the late seventies to the end of life. Note that these phases are overlapping and that one does not go to sleep in one phase and then wake up in the next.

It is during Phase I, reevaluation, when we confront our own mortality. Plans and actions are shaped by a quest or crisis. Fortunately there are brain changes during this phase that spur developmental intelligence, which provides the basis for wisdom.

During Phase II, liberation, the question, “If not now, when?” is frequently asked. Plans and actions are shaped by a new sense of personal freedom to say what we want and to act upon our personal needs. This is supported by new neuron formation in the information processing part of the brain that is associated with a desire for novelty. Retirement of partial retirement provides the time for us to experiment with new experiences.

During Phase III, recapitulation, we are motivated to share our wisdom. Our plans and actions are shaped by the desire to find meaning in life as we look back, reexamine and sum up. We often feel compelled to attend to unfinished business and unresolved conflicts. Phase III is supported by the bilateral involvement of our hippocampi to the recall of our personal memories.

During Phase IV, continuation (encore), plans and actions are shaped by the desire to restate and reaffirm major themes in our lives and also to explore novel variations on those themes. Our desire to live well to the very end has a positive impact on our families and communities. Changes in our amygdalae promote positive emotions and morale.

There is a Japanese word, ikigai,which means the reason we wake up in the morning. It is important that we have ikigai throughout our entire lives, right to the very end.

Cohen relates a wealth of research and personal stories that fill out his four phases of the last half of life in The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain.

Passing 65

May 15, 2011

Just recently I passed my 65 birthday. Being at the forefront of the Baby Boomers, many more will soon be passing this milestone. For those who are younger, let me warn you how quickly this age descends upon you.

But what exactly is the significance of reaching 65? At one time it indicated that you were eligible for full Social Security Benefits, but not for us Baby Boomers. For us that age has been increased to 66. It also was the traditional age for retirement. Some people were forced to retire when they reached this age. So this meant leaving the productive workforce and beginning the pursuit of leisure activities.

But the significance of reaching 65 has changed and it involves more than the year increase in the required age to receive full Social Security Benefits. There are a variety of reasons for this change. One is demographic. People are living longer. This, in turn, has financial consequences. As people live longer a greater burden is placed on Social Security. A greater burden is also placed on the individual as Social Security Benefits were intended as a safety net and not as a guarantee for a comfortable retirement. So the retiree is confronted with the dilemma of how quickly to spend down whatever has been saved for retirement. There is the risk of outliving one’s money. There is also the risk of outliving the ability to enjoy one’s retirement nest egg. Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia have the prospect not only of outliving one’s ability to enjoy retirement, but also of outliving one’s ability to understand what is going on or even one’s personal identity. That is, the risk of outliving one’s memory.

My Mom is living in an assisted living facility. I visit her a couple of times each week. For the past several years I’ve watched her cognitive decline. Once we were able to enjoy watching television programs together. We were able to watch both sporting events and stories. I saw her ability to understand both the sporting events and stories slip away. When I gave her a Mother’s Day card, she thought she needed to sign it and send it on to her Mom. Now my Mom will be 99 in a couple of months, yet she thought that her mother was still alive. She confuses me with my brother who passed away some time ago. And I know that it is only a matter of time before she will no longer either recognize me or confuse me with my brother.

My primary objective is to die with my cognitive facilities intact. The psychologist Stine-Morrow has an interesting hypothesis about cognitive aging.1 She argues that choice in how cognitive effort, attention, is allocated may be an essential determinant of cognitive change over the life span. .  Stine-Morrow argues that cognitive effort can directly impact cognitive change in the form of attentional engagement and indirectly as it alters neuronal changes that give rise to component capabilities.  Her ideas coincide nicely with those of Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a professor at the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscienses at the University of California at San Diego.  In turn, Dr. Merzenich’s ideas fit nicely with Kahneman’s Two System Theory (see blog post, “The Two System View of Cognition”). System One processes are effortful and require attention.  System Two processes, which are the product of learning and experience, are relatively effortless.   The older an individual is, the more developed are those System Two processes that facilitate cognition.  Consequently, there is a great temptation to rely upon these System Two processes and become a creature of habit.  Merzenich and the Stine-Morrow Hypothesis warn against relying too heavily on System Two Processes.  Effortful engagement of System One processes can be beneficial in warding off cognitive decline.  System One processes are engaged whenever we try or learn new things.  Thus engaging in new activities and in new areas of knowledge can be quite beneficial. 

Consequently, I am continuing to work and I plan on continuing to work as long as possible. My primary reason for working is that it forces me to use my System One processes and to learn and understand new concepts. Although I make use of my System Two processes that have developed over the years, I continue to learn new topics, new activities, and to meet new people. Yes, social engagement is critical to maintaining and growing a healthy memory. I also try to grow cognitively outside of work. This Healthymemory Blog is just one of those activities. I also engage in physical exercise and mental exercise. I try to maintain a positive attitude. I also try to watch my diet, although this item is engaged with less enthusiasm.  

1Stine-Morrow, A.L.  (2008).  The Dumbledore Hypothesis of Cognitive Aging.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16,  295-299.

© 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.


Will Baby Boomers Be More Vulnerable to Scams?

March 20, 2011

I recently read an article1 stating that the elderly are more prone to scams. Three reasons were given: More Trusting, Loneliness, and Memory Loss.

This made me wonder whether baby boomers will be more trusting. We were supposed to be more skeptical to begin with. My personal experience has increased this skepticism several orders of magnitude. For years I had been promising myself that I would read the annual reports that were sent to me as a stockholder. I was just starting to do this when the Enron scandal broke. That taught me that reading these reports was futile.

We have bought several homes in our lifetime. Each experience was traumatic to me. I worried about the debt I was assuming. However, I reasoned to myself that these mortgage companies would not make foolish loans or they would lose money. But one of the primary reasons for our recent financial crisis was that the mortgage companies did not care because they sold the mortgages to conglomerates that either did not know or not care what risk they were assuming. During our most recent home purchase I was amazed at the amount of debt that they would let us assume. Now I understand. They did not care if we defaulted because by that time the default would be someone else’s problem.

Then there is the financial crisis itself. It appears that deregulation and the scant enforcement of the regulations that existed were primary factors underlying the crisis. But the reforms that were passed were weak and in the view of most knowledgeable individuals, inadequate. Moreover, the recent elections indicate that it is even less likely that adequate protections will be provided.

Then there are the defaulted pensions. First were the companies that went into bankruptcy and defaulted on their pension obligations. I had thought that there were government agencies to assure that pension funds were adequately funded. Either there were not such agencies or these agencies were remiss in fulfilling their objectives. Now we have state and local governments revoking or modifying commitments that had been made to their employees.

So current events should have disabused baby boomers, at least, of being more trusting.

Peter A. Lichtenberg of Wayne State University’s Institute of Gerontology has said that his research indicated that loneliness or feeling undervalued that increases a senior’s risk. of falling for scams by 30 percent. Now Healthmemory Blog readers should realize that transactive memory involves the interaction with other humans. There are benefits here not only in the knowledge gained, but perhaps more importantly, in the interaction and building of relationships with fellow humans. The knowledge and confidence gained through interactions with both the technological and human aspects of transactive memory should also boost self esteem.

As for memory loss, the objective of the Healthymemory Blog is not only to forestall memory loss, but to promote cognitive growth. By continuing to learning about new topics and learning new skills memory health is promoted. Readers of the Healthymemory Blog should be aware of the benefits of nonconscious processing. Sleep on a decision before making it. Transactive memory involves interactions with both technology and fellow humans to build social relationships and to continue to grow cognitively. Mnemonic techniques are presented that not only provide a direct means of improving memory, but also provide a good means for cognitive exercise. Even if disease should strike, having a cognitive reserve should forestall the rate of progress of the pathology.

1Kirchheimer, S. (2011). Brain Games. March, 26. 

© 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.


Healthy Memory: Its Maintenance and Enhancement

December 1, 2009

The name of this blog is healthy memory. Accordingly, the objective of this blog is the maintenance and enhancement of memory. There are three themes to support this objective. One theme is about human memory, how it works, and some of the brain structures underlying memory. A second theme concerns mnemonic techniques, specific techniques for improving memory. The third theme is termed transactive memory. Transactive memory concerns memory that you can use, but is external to your personal biological memory. Transactive memory can be found in fellow humans and in technology. The assumption underlying this blog is that all three of these themes are important to the maintenance and enhancment of memory and provide the means to achieving a healthy memory.

First of all, if you want a healthy memory, you should have some understanding of exactly what it is. So under this theme some theory regarding memory is presented. Data on how memory works is also presented. When you read these articles you might discover that memory problems that you either have had or are just noticing as you age are common to all people of all ages. It is also important to understand what brain structures underlie memory, how they change as we age, as well as the compensatory mechanisms that occur as we age.

Mnemonic techniques are specific techniques for improving personal memory. These techniques serve two goals. One is that they provide the means of improving memory. The other is that the use of these techniques likely provide exercise to the brain that is important for its maintenance and enhancement.

Transactive memory provides yet another means of maintaining and enhancing memory. Teamwork and sharing of memory chores among your friends and family not only provides a means of memory enhancement, but it also provides for social interactions that are important to brain health. Making use of technology be it paper, a Personal Digital Assistant, or a computer is yet another means of maintaining and improving memory. Moreover, the internet provides a vast resource for cognitive growth and enhancement.

You can find the blogs under each of these categories. Unfortunately. one of the features of blogs is that they are organized in reverse chronological order. So to start at the beginning, you need to begin at the bottom and work your way up.

There is a comments section under each individual blog. You are encouraged not only to leave comments, but also to raise questions. I would like to have discussions with you and make this blog a. two way street. The more I know about you, the better I can target the blog to address your interests.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. 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.


November 24, 2009

HAROLD is an acronym for Hemispheric Asymmetry Reduction in Older Adults. It is also the name for a model that contends that activity in the Pre-frontal Cortex is less lateralized in older than in younger adults.1 Remember the specialization of the cerebral hemispheres. The left hemisphere is more specialized for the processing of verbal information, and the right hemisphere is more specialized for the processing of visual-spatial information. According the the HAROLD model this lateralization of function reduces as we age. Electrophysiological, fMRI, (see the blog, “How Can the Brain Be Imaged” to learn about these techniques) and behavioral evidence support this model in a wide variety of domains in both memory and perception. In one study young adults showed right PFC activations during word pair cued recall, whereas older adults showed significant activations in both both right and left PFC. The notion here is that this bilateral pattern of PFC is compensatory. That is, to counteract cognitive decline, older adults recruited both hemispheres whereas young adults recruited mainly one hemisphere. Similar age-related asymmetry reductions during retrieval have been found for other tasks to include word stem cued recall, word recognition, and face recognition. So HAROLD has been demonstrated for both recall and recognition tasks for both verbal and nonverbal materials during retrieval.2

Age-related asymmetry reductions have also been found during memory storage. Older adults still show a lack of hemispheric asymmetry when they are provided with strategies that raise their PFC activities to the level of young adults. So HAROLD has been shown for both information storage and retrieval.

HAROLD has also been shown for verbal vs. spatial asymmetries. PFC activity tends to be left lateralized for verbal working memory and right lateralized for spatial working memory. Older adults showed significant PFC activity bilaterally for both verbal and spatial symmetry. A reasonable question to ask is what is meant by older adults. Sometimes older participants are under the age of 50 and still show effects predicted by the HAROLD model. However, research does indicate that HAROLD does become more pronounced with advancing age.3

HAROLD indicates an age-related increase in hemispheric cooperation. A compelling view is that this cooperation is a compensation mechanism for age-related decline. That is, to counteract cognitive decline, older adults recruit both hemispheres during task conditions for which young adults primarily recruit one hemisphere. One study had participants match two letters projected either to the same visual field (hemisphere) in which the comparison could be done within the hemisphere. Or the projection was made to opposite visual fields (hemispheres)., in which the comparisons had to be made between hemispheres. The letter matchings involved three levels of difficulty:  low (physical matching with one distractor), medium (physical matching with three distractors), and high (name matching with three distractors). Here the critical comparisons are the reaction time differences between the within- and cross-hemisphere conditions. For young adults, the within-hemisphere was faster when difficulty was low, and the across-hemisphere conditions was faster when difficulty was high. The two conditions did not differ significantly when the difficulty was medium. The interpretation here is that at high levels of difficulty, the benefits of engaging resources from both hemispheres outweigh the costs of interhemisphereic communication. For the old adults the benefits of bihemispheric processing became evident at moderate levels of difficulty. Thus, the old adults benefited from interhemispheric processing earlier than the young adults, suggesting that old adults rely more on interhemispheric processing than do young adults.4


1Cabeza, R. ((2002).  Hemispheric asymmetry reduction in older adults:  The Harold model.  Psychology and Aging, 17, 85-100.

2Cabeza, R., Nyberg, L., & Park, D. (2005).  op. cit. p. 334.

3Cabeza, R., Nyberg, L., & Park, D. (2005).  op. cit. p. 334-335.

4Cabeza, R., Nyberg, L., & Park, D. (2005).  op. cit. p. 338-340.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. 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.


The Relaxation Response[1]

November 17, 2009

  Key to maintaining a healthy memory is to remain free, or as free as possible, from stress. Stress has adverse effects on both attention and memory. The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes a person’s physical and emotional response to stress. Herbert Benson, a physician affiliated with the Harvard School of Medicine and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital [2] since the 1960s found that the approach is really no different than that achieved through prayer, chanting, meditation, and repetitive motion. They lower heart rates, blood pressure and oxygen consumption. They can alleviate symptoms associated with conditions such as hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, depression, infertility, cancer, and anxiety. Aging can also be added to this list. Recent research[3] examined how the relaxation response affected cach of the body’s 40,000 genes and found that those who regularly used the relaxation response induced anti-oxidation and anti-inflammatory changes that counteracted the effects of stress on the body.

Eliciting the relaxation response is easy. One sits in a relaxed position with the eyes closed and repeats a word or sound as one breathes. When thoughts stray, just refocus on the breathing and the word repetition.  This should be done for 10 to 20 minutes once or twice a day.

Usually anything that breaks the train of everyday thought can evoke this physiological state. So participating in repetitive sports such as running, as well as progressive muscular relaxation, yoga, knitting, and crocheting. Playing musical instruments also work, assuming that you can play well such that you can become one with the instrument also works. Effective techniques can vary from individual to individual, and it is important to find the technique that works best with oneself.

 Here are some suggestions as to how to start. This is from the website of the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.[4]

Elicitation of the relaxation response is actually quite easy.  There are two essential steps:

1. Repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or muscular activity.

2. Passive disregard of everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind and the return to your repetition.

The following is the generic technique taught at the Benson-Henry Institute.

1. Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system, such as “one,” “peace,” “The Lord is my shepherd, “Hail Mary full of grace,” or “shalom.”

2. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.

3. Close your eyes.

4. Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thights, abdomen, shoulders, head, and neck.

5. Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.

6. Assume a passive attitude. Don’t worry about how well you’re doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, “Oh, well,” and gently return to your repetition.

7. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes.

8. Do not stand immediately. Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. Then open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.

9. Practice the technique once or twice daily. Good times to do so are before breakfast and before dinner.

Other techniques for evoking the relaxation response are:

·         Imagery

·         Progressive muscle relaxation

·         Repetitive prayer

·         Mindfulness meditation

·         Repetitive physical exercises

·         Breath focus.

You may want to try more than one technique to find the one that suits you best.

The relevance of the relaxation response to improving memory and warding off cognitive decline due to aging should be obvious. Attention is critical to effective memory, but mental fatigue depletes the amount of attention that can be effectively allocated to memory. The relaxation response allows for the refreshment of attention. Attention needs also to be used selectively as there is simply too much information to attend to effectively. The relaxation response facilitates the ability to attend selectively to the information of interest and to ward off distracting stimuli and thoughts.

[3] Benson, H., (2008).  Genomic counter-stress changes induced by the relaxation response.,  2 July  edition of PLoS One at



Transactive Memory Supports for Those Difficult to Recall Items

November 15, 2009

The verbosely titled blog “If We Know So Much More When We Are Older, Why Do We Have Difficulty Recalling and More Importantly, What Can Be Done About It”, explained that it is agreed that older people have more crystallized knowledge. Crystallized intelligence consists of your general storehouse of knowledge and facts. I have found as I age that the instances in which I try to recall something, but cannot retrieve it have been increasing. So how is it that although we have more knowledge, it is more difficult to access? As was explained in that previous blog, there is a distinction between what is available in memory and what can be accessed at any given time. So, yes, as we age more information becomes available in memory. One could argue that the difficulty is accessing this information is due to there being a greater mass of information to retrieve it from. Although this might be true to a certain extent, it is also likely that the act of retrieving also slows down and becomes more difficult at certain times. This certainly seems to be true in my case. The question is what to do about it?

That blog and the related blog, “Recalling Information that is Difficult to Remember,” offered a variety of techniques and strategies for recalling these items. This blog suggests how transactive memory can further facilitate this process, by enlisting the aid of others. Remember that fellow humans can serve as sources of transactive memory, and engaging them can be an enjoyable activity My wife and I make a practice of doing this. Whenever one of us tries to remember something, the name of an actor or old acquaintance, for example, and fails, that one will challenge the other to remember it. If the other party remembers it, then the problem is solved, but see the warning later in this blog. Otherwise the challenge continues. Both of us will be using the strategies and techniques discussed in the aforementioned blog. Mind you, we do get on with our lives, but the activity will continue, sometimes across days. I believe that these memory searches are healthy to the brain because unused brain circuits are being reactivated in the search for this information. So these failed retrieval attempts, although frustrating, can still be beneficial. And in most cases, these attempts eventually prove successful.

I strongly recommend this activity to other couples. And I think it can be expanded to groups of friends with like interests. These can be trivia games that can extend for days and, given today’s technology, over great distances. The social activity is beneficial in itself.

But what to do when failure persists. Here one can switch to the technology mode of transactive memory and search for the items on the internet (sure libraries and older technology are also acceptable). So technology can serve as a backup. Should the information be of special importance, it is always advisable to check your, your partner’s or your group’s recall. Biological memory is fallible. Of course, technology is also fallible, but it is always advisable to check information against multiple sources.


© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. 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.


If We Know So Much More When We Are Older, Why Do We Have Difficulty Recalling It, and More Importantly, What Can Be Done About It

November 14, 2009

It appears to be generally agreed that as we age our crystallized intelligence increases. I have found as I age that the instances in which I try to recall something, but cannot retrieve it have been increasing. So how is it that although we have more knowledge, it is more difficult to access? Isn’t that just a tad ironic?

Here it is important to distinguish between what is available in memory and what can be accessed at any specific time. So, yes, as we age more information becomes available in memory. One could argue that the difficulty in accessing this information is due to there being a greater mass of information to retrieve it from. Although this might be true to a certain extent, it is also likely that the act of retrieving also slows down and becomes more difficult at certain times. This certainly seems to be true in my case. The question is what to do about it?

I have faith that the information is available in memory and that the problem I am experiencing is temporary and that I eventually will remember it. Remember some of the techniques offered in the blog, “Recalling Information That Is Difficult to Remember.”

One of the first things to try is to alter the context of what you are trying to recall is to get new memory circuits to fire in an attempt to find the desired node. When trying to recall a name, and perhaps even a movie title, try running through the alphabet. Does it begin with an A…a B…. and so forth.

Another way of altering the context is to stop trying to recall the name and to think about the general topic. Start free associating regarding actors, actresses, and their films. This strategy has the potential for getting you out of your unsuccessful memory loop and into new associations that could lead to the desired item. What are other movies in which this actor/actress has starred?   What were the names of other actors and actress in these films?   So the general strategy here is to think about related topics with the goal of getting to the desired memory.

Another useful strategy is to think of the time period in which an event occurred. Often this is a good strategy to check to see if recalled information is correct. Some events presuppose others, so if the sequence is out of order something about the memory is incorrect. But even in this case of trying to recall the name of an actor, thinking about the movie, when you saw the movie, and the events that were occurring at that time can cause you to stumble upon, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, the name you are seeking.

When all these techniques fail, I fall back on my favorite technique, incubation. Incubation is a problem solving technique in which you stop trying to actively solve the problem. Instead, you let the problem incubate. I find that sometimes what I was trying to recall will pop into my mind when I am thinking about something else entirely. That suggests that your subconscious mind has been working on this problem. It is also a good idea to try to recall the information at a later time. Given the passage of time and a new context, sometimes what you want to recall will be retrieved quite easily.

I remain aware that I do have these occasions when I cannot retrieve available information that is not accessible at the moment. So as a preventive action I will practice retrieving the names of individuals and the key facts and terms immediately prior to a meeting. If it is an important meeting it is a good idea to start this well in advance of the meeting so that there is time to use all of the techniques we have just covered.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. 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.

Some Good News About Aging and Memory

November 13, 2009

There are changes in the way that the brain processes information that compensate for losses that occur. There are also differences between the young and the old in the processing strategies employed during reading. In one experiment[1] younger readers (average age = 20 years) were more likely to recall information from factoids. Older adults (average age = 66 years) were more likely to recall information from highly elaborated text. One way of interpreting these results is to think that older adults have more highly developed memory systems that benefit more from highly elaborated text. The younger adults are still building their memories with simple factoids.

Now for some good news about aging and memory. Skills we have learned and practiced might very well be at their finest. In any case, they are vastly superior to what we had when we were young. Our vocabularies should be greater and our word use and writing skills should be superior. Although processing might be slower, STM and LTM should function well into old age. Our ability to analyze situations and solve problems should remain strong. A study of Air Traffic Controllers attests to this fact.[2]  This study compared ATC performance of older (mean age =57) and younger (mean age = 34).  It demonstrated that the older controllers were quite capable of performing at high levels of proficiency even on fast-paced demanding real-world tasks.

We should gain wisdom as we age. We should grow wiser through our increasing years of experience. From childhood on, we have been learning. This gives us a vast resource to call upon and to apply. This provides an advantage in making judgments and decisions.

Perhaps the prominent memory researcher, James McGaugh, has expressed it best. “We can make the brain work better by simply accumulating more knowledge, which builds more networks of connections in the brain. The wisdom we acquire can compensate for the decline that may be gradually occurring.” So keep learning.           

[1] Shake, M.C., Noh, S.R., and Stine-Morrow,  E.A.L. (2009).  Age differences in learning from text: evidence for functionally distinct text processing systems.  Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23, 561-578.

[2] Nunes, A. & Kramer, A.F.  (2009).  Experience-Based Mitigation of Age-Related Performance Declines:  Evidence from Air Traffic Control.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied., 15, 12-24.



© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. 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.



Misconceptions About the Brain and Aging

November 10, 2009

  There are prominent misconceptions about the brain and aging. One is that you cannot change your brain, which is often caught in the expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This expression is not a truism. It is, to coin a term, a falsism. Perhaps you cannot teach an unwilling dog new tricks, but if the dog is willing, the brain will support new learning. The brain retains its plasticity well into old age. Brain imaging studies have shown that when we change our thinking there are corresponding changes in the relevant brain systems.

It is true that we loose brain cells every day. But what most people do not realize is that when we are born is when the number of brain cells we have is the greatest. The paradox is that as we move from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood, the brains performance improves but does so with fewer neurons.[1] Although the number of neurons decreases, the number of connections between the neurons increases. And even though neurons do die, the brain continues to make new brain cells into the golden years of 70 and beyond. Although some nerve connections might be lost, the brain reallocates functions to compensate for these losses. It is also the case that it can be beneficial to lose nerve connections. This is called pruning. When we use our brains we can grow new brain cells, create new connections, and prevent useful connections from withering.

 Perhaps the worse myth is that memory decline is inevitable as we age. If we remain physically healthy, maintain social connections, manage stress, maintain or develop a positive attitude towards ourselves and our world, and engage in intellectually stimulating mental activity, we can maintain good brain and memory functioning throughout our lives. This blog provides techniques and ideas for stimulating mental activity.

Now it is true that things happen to the brain that at first sound bad. For example, the outer surface of the cortex thins. However, this process starts when we are about 20 years old. Studies have also linked aging with decreases in the brain’s white matter. This could affect the speed of our mental processes. As the brain ages, chemical messengers decrease, which can also affect processing. Here it is important to remember the parable of the tortoise and the hare. The greater storehouse of knowledge that has been built up due to the increased opportunity for learning that aging affords can more than compensate for losses in speed of processing.

 Some people, beginning in their 60’s or 70’s, experience a loss in overall brain mass. Important areas such as the frontal lobe and the hippocampus, which transfers information from Short Term Memory (STM) to Long Term Memory (LTM), can be affected. Again, there are compensatory mechanisms that can be found in the brain itself, in the storehouse of knowledge and, it is hoped, wisdom that has accumulated as a function of age, as well as some of the techniques and methods that are offered in past and future blogs.

Moreover, not all people experience in overall brain mass. Recent research2 concludes that healthy older brains are not significantly smaller than younger brains contrary to earlier findings. Researchers believe that brain volume loss observed in past studies is likely related to pathological changes in the brain that underlie significant cognitive decline instead of aging itself. As long as people keep healthy memories, the gray matter of areas supporting cognition might not shrink as much as the current opinion holds.


[1] Restak, R.  (2009).  Think Smart:  A neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance.  New York:  Riverside Books, p. 9.

2Burgmans, S., van Boxtel, M.P.J., Vuurman, E.F.P.M., Smeets, F., & Gronenschild, E.H.B.M. (2009). The Prevalence of Cortical Gray Matter Atrophy May Be Overestimated In the Healthy Aging Brain., Neuropsychology, 29, 541-550



© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. 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.

Memory and Aging

November 6, 2009

Cognitive aging can be thought of as a process in which two competing forces determine the course of our individual cognitive abilities as we age. One force is the decline of the effectiveness of our nervous systems as we age; the other force is the vast accumulation of knowledge that has been stored over our lifetimes. Younger cognitive processes might be faster, but the amount of knowledge should be much larger in older cognitive systems. The amount of knowledge does vary considerably among older individuals and those with larger amounts of knowledge can be thought to have an advantage in countering the effects of aging.

 It is also important to realize that it is not only biological changes that can affect memory as we age. Cultural stereotypes also play a role. Unfortunately there is a stereotype in the United States that memory declines with age. The Chinese revere the elderly for their knowledge and to not have this negative stereotype.It is also the case that the deaf in America do not believe that the memory of deaf people declines with age. There is an interesting study[1] that documented these phenomena. This study involved six groups. There were three young groups (15-30 years) of American Hearing, American Deaf, and Chinese, and three older groups (59-91 years) of American Hearing, American Deaf, and Chinese. Although the three young groups performed similarly on memory tasks, the older American Deaf and older Chinese outperformed the older Hearing Americans on the memory tasks. Moreover, there was a positive correlation between the view toward aging and the view towards memory performance among the older groups. That is, those who believed that they would do well, did well; those who believed that they would do poorly, did poorly. So it is quite possible that negative stereotypes and the expectancy of memory declines can work to magnify any losses due to neurological changes.

Research continues to mount that the cognitive capacity of older adults can be preserved and enhanced through relevant kinds of intellectual, social, and physical activities.[2] Cognitive training studies have demonstrated that when older adults are provided with intensive training strategies that promote thinking and remembering, cognitive functions can improve.

The psychologist Dr. Stine-Morrow has an interesting hypothesis about cognitive aging[3]. She argues that choice in how cognitive effort, attention, is allocated may be an essential determinant of cognitive change over the life span. Subsequent discussions in this blog will further underscore the importance of attention in memory. Stine-Morrow argues that cognitive effort can directly impact cognitive change in the form of attentional engagement and indirectly as it alters neuronal changes that give rise to component capabilities.

Perhaps the most exciting finding to emerge from recent research is that the brain maintains its plasticity well into old age.[4] One needs to take advantage of this plasticity and to continue to invoke neuronal changes in ones’ brain. This book contains a large variety of memory techniques that result in the formation of new neuronal changes. These techniques require the focusing of attentional processes. They employ both hemispheres of the brain and require the recoding of information and the transfer of information between the two hemispheres. It is hoped that the practice of these techniques will have beneficial effects on brain health and reduce the risks of Alzheimer’s and Senile Dementia.


{[1]Levy, B. &Langer, E. (1994).  Aging Free from Negative Stereotypes:  Successful Memory in China and Among the American Deaf.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 989-997.

[2] Hertzog, D., Kramer, A. E., Wilson, R. S., &Lindengerger, U.  (2009).  Enrichment Effects on Adult Cognitive Development:  Can the Functional Capacity of Older Adults BE Preserved and Enhanced?  Psychogical Science in the Public Interest, 9, 1-65.

[3] Stine-Morrow, A. L. (2008).  The Dumbledore Hypothesis of Cognitive Aging.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 295-299.

[4] Doidge, N. (2007).  The Brain That Changes Itself.  New York, New York.  Penguin Books.



© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. 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.