Why Forgetfulness Might Actually Help You

Why Forgetfulness Might Actually Help You

Many people worry that forgetting names, facts or tasks on their to-do list is a sign of aging or mental decline.

A growing body of research offers a more welcome excuse: Forgetting stuff can actually be a byproduct of rigorous thinking, smooth decision-making or heightened creativity.

Forgetting can help us block out useless or outdated information and keep us from fixating on a single set of ideas or thoughts. And contrary to the notion that forgetfulness reflects a withering of brain cells, scientists say it can actually be driven by the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region linked to memory.

This doesn’t excuse major memory mishaps. It’s a problem to draw a mental blank when making a presentation, forget to pick up a co-worker you promised a ride or offend a client by spacing out on a critical rule of etiquette. And of course, purposeful forgetting doesn’t include the kind of extensive memory loss that comes with dementia or similar health problems.

Still, forgetting can serve a purpose, enabling us to think more clearly by eliminating interference from competing thoughts.

This pattern is called retrieval-induced forgetting. It’s directed in part by the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functions involved in mental control and decision-making. It makes it easier to access memories that get used a lot, and more difficult to retrieve memories that compete with them, says Michael C. Anderson, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge in England and a leading researcher on the topic.

He likens the process to search-engine optimization for the brain. “The brain balances remembering and forgetting gracefully to facilitate optimal use of memory,” Dr. Anderson says.

Understanding that people’s memories are malleable can be helpful to managers. After one of Susan Weinschenk’s consulting teams had a bad experience with a difficult client, she called team members together for a debriefing and listened to their frustrations. Then, she encouraged them to turn their focus to what they could learn from the experience, and to parts of the project that turned out better because of their work. “Now, you can move on,” Dr. Weinschenk, a behavioral scientist and consultant at The Team W in Edgar, Wis., told them.

The discussion changed how employees remembered the project. “Now when the name of that client comes up, we remember the lessons instead of the bad feelings. And we’re able to laugh about it,” she says.

The mind also tends to suppress memories that are irrelevant at the moment.

The brain undertakes a building process to accomplish this. Mice trained to find a certain location in a maze have an easier time forgetting the training and learning a new route if researchers induce neurogenesis, or growth of new neurons in the brain, when they’re trained to find a different location, says Paul Frankland, a senior scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children, an affiliate of the University of Toronto, and co-author of a 2017 research review on the topic. Researchers believe a similar process occurs in humans.

Novelist Jill Shalvis sometimes becomes so immersed in the creative process that she forgets to make sure her shoes match when she leaves home.
Novelist Jill Shalvis sometimes becomes so immersed in the creative process that she forgets to make sure her shoes match when she leaves home. PHOTO: ZRSTUDIOS

Eliminating unneeded details from memory makes it easier to draw general conclusions and spot abstract patterns based on our experiences. A manager might forget that an employee missed a meeting if the rest of her team was there, for example, making it easier to remember more important takeaways, such as the meeting’s outcome.

“Our memory systems didn’t evolve to be good at Trivial Pursuit or ‘Jeopardy!’ but to enable us to be smart about how we think and act,” says Blake Richards, assistant professor of neuroscience and machine learning at the University of Toronto and co-author with Dr. Frankland of the 2017 research review.

Forgetting prevents a memory problem called interference, which causes you to recall incorrect information because it’s similar to the memory you want, Dr. Richards says. This happens when, say, you mix up the names of people who play similar roles—calling your current intern, whose name is Matt, by the name of your intern last year, Mike, or when you suffer the tip-of-the-tongue syndrome, unable to recall a word or name because your memory of a similar one is blocking it.

Forgetting also helps solve another thinking problem called fixation, or a blind adherence to ideas, solutions or designs that already exist.

By clearing the mind of past patterns and practices, forgetting can make way for breakthrough thinking, says Benjamin Storm, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and co-writer of numerous studieson the role of memory and forgetting in creative thinking. “One of the biggest obstacles to thinking of something new and different is our old ideas, our current perspective and things we already know. Forgetting is at the heart of getting around that,” he says.

Michele Woodward forgot about a blog post she wrote a year ago until recently, when a friend posted it a second time on Facebook. Looking back, she’s glad it slipped her mind, because her lapse in memory freed her to write another post recently on the same topic, finding meaning in daily life, in an entirely fresh, new way. “Sometimes forgetting is an opportunity to create something new,” says Ms. Woodward, a Washington, D.C., executive coach.

Deep concentration can temporarily erase irrelevant details from the mind. Novelist Jill Shalvis sometimes becomes so consumed by writing and creating scenes in her mind that she leaves her house wearing her sweater inside-out or shoes that don’t match. When a checkout clerk at the grocery store pointed out her mismatched flip-flops, Ms. Shalvis’s teenage daughter piped up, explaining that her mother’s shoes never match when she’s on deadline.

“I have gone outside to walk the dog and forgotten to take the dog,” says Ms. Shalvis, who lives near Lake Tahoe in California, and owns two Labrador retrievers with her husband. “When I’m on deadline, I can forget what I’m doing while I’m doing it.”

Thinking hard about ideas or problems also can disrupt your ability to remember why you decided to do some other, less-important chore or task, says Chris Bailey, author of “Hyperfocus,” a book on staying productive amid distractions.

He sometimes finds himself walking into his kitchen and realizing he’s forgotten the reason he wanted to go there in the first place—such as picking up a grocery list from the table. “It’s usually a sign that I need to let my mind wander a little, and carve out more space to process that problem or decision,” he says.

 

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal. Read the original article.

Six to 8 Hours a Night May Be the Sweet Spot for Sleep

Six to 8 Hours a Night May Be the Sweet Spot for Sleep

Getting enough sleep is healthful, but getting too much might not be.

Researchers gathered health and lifestyle information, including self-reported sleep data, on 116,632 people in 21 countries. Over eight years of follow-up, they recorded 4,381 deaths and 4,365 major cardiovascular events.

The study, in the European Heart Journal, found that compared with people who slept six to eight hours a night, those who slept eight to nine hours had a 5 percent increased risk for cardiovascular disease or death. People who slept nine to 10 hours had a 17 percent increased risk, and those who slept more than 10 hours increased their risk by 41 percent. The researchers also found a 9 percent increased risk in people who slept less than six hours, but that difference was not statistically significant.

Daytime naps also increased the risk for cardiovascular events, but only in people who slept more than six hours a night.

The researchers controlled for age, body mass index, physical activity, diabetes, depression, smoking, alcohol consumption and many other health and behavioral characteristics.

“Get enough sleep — that is, six to eight hours a day,” said the lead author, Chuangshi Wang, a doctoral student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “But if you sleep more than nine hours a day, you may want to visit a doctor to check your overall health.”

‘The New Mind Readers’ Review: Scanning for Thoughts

‘The New Mind Readers’ Review: Scanning for Thoughts

In 2009 a group of researchers placed a dead salmon in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and showed the fish some photos of people in social situations. Their results, presented under the title “Neural Correlates of Interspecies Perspective Taking in the Post-Mortem Atlantic Salmon,” were surprising. The scans revealed a red spot of activity centered in the salmon’s brain.

The authors of the study weren’t trying to pull a fast one on the scientific community. Nor did they believe in zombie fish. They were showing that statistics, used incorrectly, can demonstrate almost anything. Specifically, a certain type of data analysis, often used on fMRI scans, can find signal where there should be only noise.

Russell Poldrack, a psychologist at Stanford University, mentions the stunt in “The New Mind Readers: What Neuroimaging Can and Cannot Reveal About Our Thoughts.” His book, ostensibly about fMRI and its use in studying how the brain functions (hence “functional”), serves as a lesson in how the science works—or should work. Through blunders and baloney, innovation and self-correction, the young field of cognitive neuroscience is quickly evolving.

The implicit heroes throughout Mr. Poldrack’s book are the scientists who wield statistical tools wisely. Take the debate about face processing. Some neuroscientists believe that an area of the brain called the fusiform face area (FFA) is dedicated to discriminating between visages, while others hold that it serves a more general function, helping to differentiate between things one has become an expert at recognizing—cars or birds, for example. Then Jim Haxby, a Dartmouth neuroscientist, stirred things up. Instead of looking for brain regions that responded more strongly than others to some stimulus—a picture of a face, say—he reversed the process to guess what people were looking at based on brain activity. And instead of relying on hot spots such as the FFA, he used patterns of activity distributed across a wider area. Mr. Haxby found that you could tell if people were looking at faces even if you ignored the FFA. More important, in Mr. Poldrack’s view, Mr. Haxby provided “a whole new way to think about fMRI data.”

This new way has led to the decoding of thoughts—or the “mind reading” of Mr. Poldrack’s title. Neuroscientists have used fMRI data to tell which of many images someone was viewing or to roughly reconstruct simple patterns viewed by their subjects. More recently, machine-learning algorithms have used fMRI data to (messily) reconstruct what people saw merely in their mind’s eye.

Neuroimaging rarely offers insight into human thought not available through psychology experiments, but sometimes it does. Mr. Poldrack describes patients with no use of their bodies who can nevertheless respond to yes-no questions by imagining themselves playing tennis (yes) or walking around their house (no). And fMRI has helped give birth to “neuromarketing,” where brain scans of people watching advertisements helped predict an ad’s success better than other methods, based on activity in motivation-related areas like the ventral striatum.

Neuromarketing has also been a source of growing pains for cognitive neuroscience. Mr. Poldrack recounts a newspaper article titled “You Love Your iPhone. Literally.” In it, a neuromarketer wrote that his team scanned the brains of 16 subjects as they watched videos of iPhones ringing. The scans showed heightened activity in the insular cortex, which, according to the article, “is associated with feelings of love and compassion.” From that observation, the article’s author concluded that the subjects “loved their iPhones.” The problem, Mr. Poldrack tells us, is that activity in the insular cortex is associated with lots of things. It’s highly active in about a third of brain-imaging studies. What’s more, it often indicates negative emotions. Brain areas tend to play many roles, and tasks tend to recruit many regions of the brain. You don’t find many one-to-one associations. Mr. Poldrack says that in the case of neuromarketing, “interpreting fMRI results seems to be more akin to a Rorschach test . . . than to actual science.”

Mr. Poldrack also finds villainy in the courtroom. Companies have popped up offering fMRI lie-detection services, despite insufficient evidence of its accuracy. So far, such tests haven’t been accepted by judges, but other companies have started offering fMRI proof of physical pain in civil cases using unreviewed methods.

Some mischief is unintentional or routine. Thankfully, science often self-corrects. In 2011 a trio of psychologists, noting the way colleagues in medicine and psychology massage their data to produce the conclusions they desire, used standard statistical tricks to show, among other things, that Beatles music makes listeners a year younger. Such critiques, and the failure to replicate many of the findings in the literature, have led researchers to improve their methods.

Mr. Poldrack comes across in this accessible book as eminently levelheaded but also personable. He makes a clear argument for the scientific method: “Constant questioning and self-doubt are ultimately the best way that we know to keep from fooling ourselves.” If one wanted, one could even use this book to argue for teaching statistics instead of geometry or calculus in school. Statistical methods and mindsets are helpful every day. Causality is messy and cognition is faulty. “The New Mind Readers” will teach you some things about the brain. More important, it may also teach you how to use one.

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal. Read the original article.

Johnson: Bringing up baby bilingual

Johnson: Bringing up baby bilingual

THIS weekend Johnson enjoyed an American holiday in Berlin: the children’s Halloween party held by neighbours, a half-German, half-American couple. Besides mermaid tails, ladybug antennas or monster horns, nearly every one of the nippers at the party had another accessory: a second language.

Johnson’s own nipper is still pre-verbal at nearly 18 months, meaning that every request not immediately understood and satisfied may quickly turn into a piercing shriek. But we take comfort that Johnson, junior, is cognitively just fine. If his language comes a little late, that is probably because, for one thing, he is male, and for another, he is surrounded every day by three languages: English and Danish at home, and German all day at nursery. More confusingly still, the three languages are closely related: is it bread, Brot or brød? Apple, Apfel or æble? House, Haus or hus? The earthy words in English are mostly Germanic, meaning these triplets are coming up in his world all the time.

Children raised bilingual or multilingual show similar results. In early days they will mix languages. They make errors by using the syntax of one language and the words of another. (“Touch the guitar”, my old Spanish teacher’s daughter would say, instead of “Play the guitar”.) But these problems disappear quickly. By three or four, children reliably separate the languages, knowing which can be spoken with whom. Their fluency in each would be the envy of any adult language-learner.

Many parents once believed that a second language was a bad idea, as it would interfere with developing the first and more important one. But such beliefs are woefully out of date today. Some studies (such as this one) seem to show that bilinguals have smaller vocabularies in each language (at early stages) than monolinguals do. But other studies (such as this one) find no vocabulary shortfall in either language. In any case, the influence of mono- or bilingualism on vocabulary size is later overtaken by the importance of education, socio-economic status, reading and writing habits. In short, there is little evidence that raising a child bilingual will hurt their primary language.

The benefits, by contrast, are both strong and long-lasting. Bilingual children as young as seven months outperform monolinguals at tasks requiring “executive function”: prioritising and planning complex tasks and switching mental gears. This is probably because monitoring the use of two languages is itself an exercise in executive function. Such studies control for socio-economic status, and in fact the same beneficial effects have been shown in bilingual children of poor families. Finally, the effects appear to be lifelong: bilinguals have later onset of Alzheimer’s disease, on average, than do monolinguals.

All this is hot evidence for a mental exercise that could give children a lifelong advantage. Should you then run out and sign your child up for whatever language you can find? Alas, no. As the saying goes, “for whosoever hath, to him shall be given.” Multiple languages are best for you when you’ve had them from birth. The dramatic studies here work with “crib” bilinguals, children raised with both languages spoken by natives in their homes.

And even having a native speaker among the parents at home is not by itself enough. If a child is raised by one monoglot Anglophone and one bilingual in an English-speaking country, the child’s second language may atrophy if the bilingual parent isn’t strict about conducting all exchanges with the child in this language. This is the root of the “one parent, one language” theory that many bilingual families swear by. By this theory, consistency is important for the learning brain.

But one researcher on the topic, François Grosjean (who blogs here), disagrees that one-parent, one-language is a must. Instead, he says, “the need factor is crucial”—that is, the child must experience regular monolingual situations in each language. If there are no domains (school, travel, grandparents) where only one of the two languages will do, “children are very good at judging whether it is worth maintaining a language or letting it wither away.” One option he recommends is to speak only one language at home and the other outside the home. (This requires both parents to be fairly fluent in both languages, though.)

For parents who cannot make their children “crib bilinguals”, there are, of course, still many reasons to teach children foreign languages, and many benefits. Here, still, time is not on parents’ and teachers’ sides. The earlier children begin the second language, the better they will learn it. Norway has already introduced English in the first year of school, and Denmark is soon to do so. These countries, unlike France, Germany or Spain, have very small languages of their own, so they know language ability is crucial to their future competitiveness. Talk about the “need factor”.

This article was originally published in The Economist. Read the original article.

Too Much Caffeine May Stress the Heart

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Too Much Caffeine May Stress the Heart

As my brother neared the end of a smooth, swift recovery from open-heart surgery to bypass an 80-percent blockage in his heart’s most important artery recently, he reverted to a longstanding habit of downing many cups a day of strong coffee. I objected, but he insisted that the caffeine doesn’t affect him, meaning it doesn’t disturb his sleep.

But when I noticed how easily he became upset or angered by minor irritations many times a day, I decided to look into what is known about the bodily effects of so much caffeine and whether it might contribute to the harmful effects of stress on the heart.

Caffeine is by far America’s leading nonprescription drug, regularly consumed by some 90 million adults each day in coffee, tea, soft and energy drinks and some prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Amounts can range widely. An 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee may contain 95 to 165 milligrams of caffeine, while a cup of instant coffee delivers 63 milligrams. One ounce of espresso has 47 to 64 milligrams; 8 ounces of brewed black tea, 25 to 48 milligrams; 8 ounces of brewed green tea, 25 to 29 milligrams; 8 ounces of cola, 24 to 46 milligrams, whereas a 12-ounce energy drink can contain as much as 300 milligrams. Much smaller amounts of caffeine can be found in chocolate, decaffeinated coffee, some candies and even some foods like waffles.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not against caffeine. I drink about two and a half cups of caffeinated coffee a day, “watered” down with lots of milk. And I occasionally snack on a few chocolate-covered coffee beans.

In moderate doses caffeine has mainly positive effects for most people. It is a central nervous system stimulant that increases alertness, relieves fatigue and improves concentration and focus. For sports participants, it can enhance endurance. It may even boost weight loss by temporarily suppressing appetite and prompting the body to produce heat and energy when digesting food. Consumed in moderation, coffee has even been linked to a reduced risk of several kinds of cancer.

If not for caffeine, I suspect there’d be a lot more accidents involving drivers who fall asleep at the wheel. I dare not drive long distances without a mug of coffee at my elbow, and often have a cup before going to a concert, opera or play. But I also know not to overdo it lest I become tolerant to caffeine’s stimulating effect and it no longer helps me remain awake when it really counts.

The Food and Drug Administration advises a maximum daily intake of 400 milligrams, the amount in two to three cups of caffeinated coffee, depending on the brand and roast. But what if, like my brother, you are consuming six or more cups of coffee a day? Even if your sleep is not disrupted, that amount of caffeine has been associated with an irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, jitteriness, irritability and anxiety, all of which can have untoward effects on cardiovascular function.

Caffeine increases secretion of the body’s main stress hormone, cortisol, best known for fueling a fight-or-flight response to a perceived threat or crisis. Produced by the adrenal glands when stimulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, cortisol diverts other bodily functions to permit a quick, effective response to stress or danger.

China’s Women-Only Subway Cars, Where Men Rush In
A sudden jolt from cortisol prompts your blood pressure to rise, heart to beat faster and energy level to soar, which no doubt enabled some early humans to escape a hungry lion in pursuit. Few of us today have to worry about becoming prey to a wild beast. Still, many live in a near-constant state of biochemical stress with the body’s alarm system turned on high all day long.

A constant outpouring of too much cortisol can result in a number of health problems, including anxiety, depression, problems with memory and concentration, trouble sleeping, weight gain and — yes, dear brother — heart disease.

Although the cortisol responses to caffeine are reduced in people who consume it every day, they are not eliminated, a controlled trial by a multidisciplinary research team demonstrated. In a report published in 2005 in Psychosomatic Medicine, the team, led by William R. Lovallo, an expert on stress at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, concluded that “chronic elevations of cortisol secretion may have implications for long-term health.”

Among the possible harmful effects the team listed are impaired responses by the immune system and central nervous system, memory deficits and changes in the workings of the brain’s frontal lobe and limbic system involved in critical factors like problem solving, judgment, motivation, attention, memory, learning, emotions and empathy.

For those at risk of heart disease, perhaps the most serious adverse effect of excessive caffeine consumption is its ability to raise blood pressure. As Dr. Lovallo’s team reported, “daily caffeine intake does not abolish the blood pressure response to caffeine” even in healthy young men and women.

Other studies have shown that in people with hypertension or at risk of developing it, cortisol responses to caffeine are exaggerated. In an earlier study, Dr. Lovallo and colleagues found that “borderline hypertensives and those with a positive family history have more rapid and prolonged cortisol responses to caffeine than do low-risk persons.”

My brother has long been treated for hypertension and is now very conscientious about staying on a low-sodium diet. But maybe it would be even more helpful if he also reduced the amount of caffeine he regularly consumes, replacing some of that caffeinated coffee with decaf, a suggestion he categorically rejected when I offered it.

I’ve since found another cardiovascular reason for my brother and others to consider reducing the amount of cortisol that routinely travels through their bloodstream. A 2012 British study of 466 healthy men and women, average age 62, who had no history or signs of coronary heart disease found that in the 40 percent who reacted to a stressful task with a significant rise in cortisol, calcium deposits in their coronary arteries increased significantly over the course of three years. High calcium levels are associated with more arterial plaque and a greater risk of heart attack.

Even in a sample of healthy young women, researchers have found that a stress-induced rise in blood pressure was associated with a 24 percent increased chance of developing calcium deposits in their coronary arteries 13 years later.

So, as with most other good things in life, with caffeine, moderation is the key to maximizing the benefits while minimizing the risks.

This article was originally published in The New York Times. Read the original article.

How to stay healthy and happy through the decades

How to stay healthy and happy through the decades

Castel sees many inspiring role models of aging. French Impressionist Claude Monet, he notes, began his beloved water lily paintings at age 73.

Castel cites hundreds of research studies, including his own, combined with personal accounts from older Americans, including Maya Angelou, Warren Buffett, John Wooden, Bob Newhart, Frank Gehry, David Letterman, Jack LaLanne, Jared Diamond, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Glenn and Vin Scully.

Castel notes that architect Gehry designed conventional buildings and shopping malls early in his career, and decades later designed the creative buildings he would only dream about when he was younger. Others who did much of their best work when they were older include Mark Twain, Paul Cezanne, Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Frost and Virginia Woolf, he writes.

“There are a lot of myths about aging, and people often have negative stereotypes of what it means to get old,” Castel said. “I have studied aging for two decades, and have seen many impressive role models of aging, as well as people who struggle in older age. This book provides both science behind what we can to do age well and role models of successful aging. While some books focus on how to try to prevent or delay aging, ‘Better with Age’ shows how we can age successfully and enjoy the benefits of old age. I have combined the lessons the psychology of aging teaches us with insights from some of the people who have succeeded in aging well.”

Castel cites a 1979 study by Harvard University social psychologist Ellen Langer in which men in their 70s and 80s went to a week-long retreat at a motel that was re-designed to reflect the décor and music from 1959. The men, who were all dependent on family members for their care, were more independent by the end of the week, and had significant improvements in their hearing, memory, strength and scores on intelligence tests. Some played catch with a football. One group of the men, who were told to behave like they were 20 years younger, showed greater flexibility, and even looked younger, according to observers who saw photos of them at the start and end of the week.

In another study, researchers analyzed Catholic nuns’ diary entries made in the 1930s and 1940s, when the nuns were in their 20s, and determined their level of happiness from these diaries. More than 50 years later, 75 percent of the most cheerful nuns survived to age 80, while only 40 percent of the least happy nuns survived to 80. The happiest nuns lived 10 years longer than the least happy nuns.

Happiness increases our lives by four to 10 years, a recent research review suggested. “As an added bonus,” Castel writes, “those additional years are likely to be happy ones.”

Successful aging involves being productive, mentally fit, and, most importantly, leading a meaningful life, Castel writes.

What are the ingredients of staying sharp and aging successfully, a process which Castel says can start at any age? He has several recommendations.

Tips for longevity

Better with Age book cover
Credit: Oxford University Press

Walking or other physical exercise is likely the best method to ensure brain and body health, Castel writes.

In a large 2011 study, older adults were randomly assigned to a group that walked for 40 minutes three times a week or a stretching group for the same amount of time. After six months and again after one year, the walking group outperformed the stretching group on memory and cognitive functioning tests. Too much running, on the other hand, can lead to joint pain and injuries.

In addition, after one year, those who walked 40 minutes a day three times a week showed a 2 percent increase in the volume of the hippocampus — an important brain region involved in memory. Typically, Castel notes, the hippocampus declines about 1 percent a year after age 50. “Walking actually appears to reverse the effects of aging,” Castel says in the book.

Balance exercises are proven to prevent falls, can keep us walking and may be the most essential training activity for older adults, Castel writes. Each year, more than two million older Americans go to the emergency room because of fall-related injuries. A 2014 British study found that people who could get up from a chair and sit back down more than 30 times in a minute were less likely to develop dementia and more likely to live longer than those who could not. A good balance exercise is standing on one leg with your eyes open for 60 seconds or more, and then on the other leg. Those who did poorly on this were found in a study to be at greater risk for stroke and dementia.

Like walking, sleep is valuable free medicine. Studies have shown a connection between insomnia and the onset of dementia.

People who speak more than one language are at reduced risk for developing dementia, research has shown; there is some evidence being bilingual or multilingual can offset dementia by five years, Castel writes.

One study found that among people between 75 and 85, those who engaged in reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments and dancing had less dementia than those who did none of those activities. “Lifelong reading, especially in older age, may be one of the secrets to preserving mental ability,” Castel writes.

Set specific goals. Telling yourself to “eat healthy” is not very likely to cause a change; setting a goal of “eating fewer cookies after 7 p.m.” is better. Similarly, “walk four days a week with a friend” is a more useful goal than “get more exercise” and “call a friend or family member every Friday morning” is better than “maintain friendships.”

How can we improve our memory? When Douglas Hegdahl was a 20-year-old prisoner of war in North Vietnam, he wanted to learn the names of other American prisoners. He memorized their names, capture dates, methods of capture and personal information of more than 250 prisoners to the tune of the nursey rhyme, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Today, more than four decades later, he can still recall all of their names, Castel writes.

Social connections are also important. Rates of loneliness among older adults are increasing and chronic loneliness “poses as large a risk to long-term health and longevity as smoking cigarettes and may be twice as harmful for retirees as obesity,” Castel writes. The number of Americans who say they have no close friends has roughly tripled in the last few decades. There is evidence that people with more social support tend to live longer than those who are more isolated, and that older adults who lead active social lives with others are less likely to develop dementia and have stronger immune systems to fight off diseases. “Staying sharp,” Castel writes, “involves staying connected — and not to the Internet.”

A 2016 study focused on “super-agers” — people in their 70s whose memories are like those of people 40 years younger. Many of them said they worked hard at their jobs and their hobbies. The hard work was challenging, and not always pleasurable, leaving people sometimes feeling tired and frustrated. Some researchers believe this discomfort and frustration means you are challenging yourself in ways that will pay off in future brain and other health benefits.

Research has shown that simply telling older adults they are taking a “wisdom test” rather than a “memory test” or “dementia screening” actually leads to better results on the identical memory test, Castel writes.

If you are concerned about your memory, or that of a loved one, it may be wise to see a neurologist, Castel advises.

Castel, 42, said he is struck by how many older adults vividly recall what is most important to them.

As Castel quotes the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero: “No old man forgets where he has hidden his treasure.”

This article was originally published in NIH. Read the original article.

Even a 10-Minute Walk May Be Good for the Brain

Even a 10-Minute Walk May Be Good for the Brain

Ten minutes of mild, almost languorous exercise can immediately alter how certain parts of the brain communicate and coordinate with one another and improve memory function, according to an encouraging new neurological study. The findings suggest that exercise does not need to be prolonged or intense to benefit the brain and that the effects can begin far more quickly than many of us might expect.

We already know that exercise can change our brains and minds. The evidence is extensive and growing.

Multiple studies with mice and rats have found that when the animals run on wheels or treadmills, they develop more new brain cells than if they remain sedentary. Many of the new cells are clustered in the hippocampus, a portion of the brain that is essential for memory creation and storage.

The active animals also perform better on tests of learning and memory.

Equivalent experiments examining brain tissue are not possible in people. But some past studies have shown that people who exercise regularly tend to have a larger, healthier hippocampus than those who do not, especially as they grow older. Even one bout of exercise, research suggests, can help most of us to focus and learn better than if we sit still.

But these studies usually have involved moderate or vigorous exercise, such as jogging or brisk walking, and often for weeks or months at a time.

Whether a single, brief spurt of very easy exercise will produce desirable changes in the brain has remained unclear.

So for the new study, which was published in September in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Tsukuba in Japan turned to a group of healthy young college students.

They recruited students in part because they are easy to come by on college campuses but also because bright, healthy young men and women should have brains and memories that are functioning well.

For an experiment to produce improvements in their brain function, its effects would need to be potent.

The scientists invited 36 of the students to the lab and had them sit quietly on a stationary bicycle for 10 minutes or, on a separate visit, pedal the bicycle at a pace so gentle it barely raised their heart rates.

In technical terms, the exercise was performed at about 30 percent of each volunteer’s maximum heart rate. By comparison, brisk walking should raise someone’s heart rate to about 50 percent of his or her maximum.

So this exercise was very easy.

It also was short, lasting for only 10 minutes.

Immediately after each session of the sitting or slow pedaling, the students completed a computerized memory test during which they would see a brief picture of, for instance, a tree, followed by a variety of other images and then a new image of either the same tree or a similar one.

The students would press buttons to show whether they thought each image was new or the same as an earlier shot.

The test is difficult, since many of the images closely resemble one another. It requires rapid, deft shuffling through recent memories to decide whether a picture is new or known.

Next, the scientists had each student repeat this sequence — riding or sitting on the bike for 10 minutes and then completing memory testing — but the testing now took place inside an M.R.I. machine that scanned the young people’s brains while they responded to the images.

Then the researchers compared results.

The effects of the exercise, undemanding as it was, were clear. The young people were better at remembering images after they had ridden the bike, especially when the images most closely resembled one another.

In other words, the harder their memories had to strain, the better they performed after the exercise.

More unexpected, their brains also worked differently after they had ridden. The M.R.I. scans showed that portions of each student’s hippocampus lit up in synchronized fashion with parts of the brain associated with learning, indicating that these physically separate parts of the brain were better connected now than when the students had not first exercised.

And the greater the coordination between the disparate parts of the brain, the better the students performed on the memory test.

“It was exciting to see those effects occurring so quickly and after such light exercise,” says Michael Yassa, the director of the U.C. Irvine Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and senior co-author of the new study with Hideaki Soya of the University of Tsukuba.

The findings show that exercise can change people’s brains and minds right away, he says, without requiring weeks of working out. Even better, the exertion required can be so slight as to allow almost anyone, even those who are out of shape or possibly disabled, to complete the exercise.

How, at a molecular level, such gentle exercise affects the brain’s operations is still unknown, he says, although he and his colleagues suspect that changes in blood flow and hormone levels are probably involved.

They hope to explore those issues in future studies and also look at the impacts in younger and older people.

But already, the message is cheering.

“We are not talking about marathons,” he says. “It looks like people can improve their memories with a short walk or an easy session of something like yoga or tai chi.”

This article was originally published in The New York Times.  Read the original article.

Being Fit May Be as Good for You as Not Smoking

Being Fit May Be as Good for You as Not Smoking

Being in shape may be as important to a long life as not smoking, according to an interesting new study of the links between fitness and mortality.

The study also explores whether there is any ceiling to the benefits of fitness — whether, in essence, you can exercise too much. The answer, it found, is a reassuring no.

At this point, we should not be surprised to hear that people who exercise and have high aerobic endurance tend to live longer than those who are sedentary and out of shape. A large body of past research has linked exercise with longevity and indicated that people who work out tend also to be people with lengthy, healthy lives.

But much of this research relied on asking people about their exercise routines, a practice that is known to elicit unreliable answers.

So for the new study, which was published this month in JAMA Network Open, a group of researchers and physicians at the Cleveland Clinic decided to look for more objective ways to measure the relationship between endurance and longevity.

Because most of the researchers also are avid exercisers and even competitive athletes, they hoped to learn, too, whether people can overdo exercise and potentially shorten their life spans.

Helpfully, they had a trove of data at hand in the records of hundreds of thousands of men and women who had completed treadmill stress tests at the clinic.

These stress tests, which sometimes are part of standard yearly checkups and other times are ordered by physicians to check for cardiac or other health problems, involve someone jogging on a treadmill at a progressively intense pace until, basically, he or she cannot.

Based on the results, technicians can determine people’s aerobic fitness.

Now, the researchers turned to this database and pulled records for 122,007 middle-aged or older men and women.

They grouped the people by fitness, from those who were in the bottom quarter of fitness, to those who were below average, above average or highly fit, essentially in the top 25 percent of fitness.

The researchers also marked off a small group in the top 2 percent or so of endurance and categorized them as having “elite” fitness.

Then the researchers checked death records for the decade after people had completed their stress tests.

They found that some of the men and women had died and also that there strong correlations between fitness and mortality.

The greater someone’s fitness, the less likely he or she was to have died prematurely and vice versa, the numbers showed.

This correlation held true at every level of fitness, the researchers found. People with the lowest fitness were more likely to die early than those with below-average fitness, while those with high fitness lived longer than those whose fitness was above average.

Even at the loftiest reaches of endurance, the advantage held, the data showed. The 2 percent of the people with elite fitness lived longer than those with high fitness and were about 80 percent less likely to die prematurely than the men and women with the lowest endurance.

“We did not see any indication that you can be too fit,” says Dr. Wael Jaber, the study’s senior author and a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine.

More surprising, when the researchers compared the longevity benefits of endurance to those of other health factors, fitness held up well.

People in this database who smoked or had heart disease were more likely to die young than those who did not, the researchers found, as they had expected.

But the numerical risks were about the same as the ones associated with being unfit. In other words, being out of shape increased someone’s risk of dying early as much as smoking did.

But Dr. Jaber cautions that these numbers can be misinterpreted. The clinic’s medical records noted only if someone had ever smoked, not for how many years or how frequently, making risk assessments difficult.

The correlations also do not suggest that being fit somehow balances out or reduces the health risks of smoking, Dr. Jaber says. “Fitness is very good for you and so, obviously, is not smoking,” he says.

The study has other caveats, including the confounding role of genes, which strongly influence fitness. Some of the apparent longevity benefits of being in shape may be from having the right parents, Dr. Jaber says.

Socioeconomic status and other factors also probably play a role. People who show up for stress testing at the Cleveland Clinic may have resources that are not shared by everyone, including good insurance and an interest in health.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the study did not look directly at exercise, only fitness, and so cannot tell us how much we should move to extend our lives.

But the findings are tantalizing, Dr. Jaber says. “We know from other research that you can increase fitness with exercise,” he says. “So I think we can say, based on this study and others, that it is a very good idea to exercise if you hope for a long and healthy life.”

 

This article was originally published in The New York Times.  Read the original article.

What causes some people to be left-handed, and why are fewer people left-handed than right-handed?

What causes some people to be left-handed, and why are fewer people left-handed than right-handed?

Researchers who study human hand preference agree that the side of the preferred hand (right versus left) is produced by biological and, most likely, genetic causes. The two most widely published genetic theories of human hand preference argue that evolutionary natural selection produced a majority of individuals with speech and language control in the left hemisphere of the brain. Because the left hemisphere also controls the movements of the right hand–and notably the movements needed to produce written language–millennia of evolutionary development resulted in a population of humans that is biased genetically toward individuals with left hemisphere speech/language and right-hand preference. Approximately 85 percent of people are right-handed. These theories also try to explain the persistent and continuing presence of a left-handed minority (about 15 percent of humans).

The genetic proposal to explain hand preference states that there are two alleles, or two manifestations of a gene at the same genetic location, that are associated with handedness. One of these alleles is a D gene (for dextral, meaning ¿right¿) and the other allele is a C gene (for ¿chance¿). The D gene is more frequent in the population and is more likely to occur as part of the genetic heritage of an individual. It is the D gene that promotes right-hand preference in the majority of humans. The C gene is less likely to occur within the gene pool, but when it is present, the hand preference of the individual with the C gene is determined randomly. Individuals with the C gene will have a 50 percent chance of being right-handed and a 50 percent chance of being left-handed.

These theories of hand preference causation are intriguing because they can account for the fact that the side of hand preference of individuals with the C gene (most left-handers and some right-handers) can be influenced by external cultural and societal pressures, a phenomenon that researchers have documented. These theories can also explain the presence of right-handed children in families with left-handed parents and the presence of left-handed children in families with right-handed parents. If the familial genetic pool contains C genes, then hand preference becomes amenable to chance influences, including the pressures of familial training and other environmental interventions that favor the use of one hand over the other. The proposed genetic locus that determines hand preference contains an allele from each parent, and the various possible genetic combinations are DD individuals who are strongly right-handed, DC individuals who are also mostly right-handed, and CC individuals who are either right-handed or left-handed. These genetic combinations leave us with an overwhelming majority of human right-handers and a small, but persistently occurring, minority of left-handers.

 

 

This article was originally published in Scientific American. Read the original article.

For a Better Brain, Learn Another Language

For a Better Brain, Learn Another Language
There’s a certain sinking feeling one gets when thinking of the perfect thing to say just a moment too late. Perhaps a witty parting word could have made all the difference. There is no English word to express this feeling, but the French have the term l’esprit de l’escalier—translated, “stairwell wit”—for this very phenomenon.

Nor is there an English word to describe the binge eating that follows an emotional blow, but the Germans have kummerspeck—“grief-bacon”—to do just that. If we had the Swedish word lagom—which means something is just right—the English explanation of Goldilocks’ perfectly temperate soup could have been a lot more succinct. Or the term koi no yokan, a poetic Japanese turn of phrase that expresses the feeling of knowing that you will soon fall in love with the person you have just met. It’s not love at first sight so much as an understanding that love is inevitable. Keats and Byron could have really used a word like that.

There are many words that English speakers don’t have. Sometimes Anglophones take from other languages, but often, we have to explain our way around a specific feeling or emotion that doesn’t have its own word, never quite touching on it exactly.

“The reason why we borrow words like savoir faire from French is because it’s not part of the culture [in the United States] and therefore that word did not evolve as part of our language,” says George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

“Speaking different languages means you get different frames, different metaphors, and also you’re learning the culture of the language so you get not only different words, but different types of words,” Lakoff told me.

But the benefits of speaking multiple languages extend past just having access to different words, concepts, metaphors, and frames.

Multilingualism has a whole slew of incredible side effects: Multi-linguals tend to score better on standardized tests, especially in math, reading, and vocabulary; they are better at remembering lists or sequences, likely from learning grammatical rules and vocabulary; they are more perceptive to their surroundingsand therefore better at focusing in on important information while weeding out misleading information (it’s no surprise Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are skilled polyglots). And there’s certainly something to be said for the cultural pleasure of reading The Odyssey in ancient Greek or Proust’s In Search of Lost Timein French.

“Cognitive traps,” or simple mistakes in spelling or comprehension that our brains tend to make when taking linguistic shortcuts (such as how you can easily read “tihs senetcne taht is trerilby msispleld”), are better avoided when one speaks multiple languages. Multi-linguals might also be better decision-makers. According to a new study, they are more resistant to conditioning and framing techniques, making them less likely to be swayed by such language in advertisements or political campaign speeches. Those who speak multiple languages have also been shown to be more self-aware spenders, viewing “hypothetical” and “real” money (the perceived difference between money on a credit card and money in cold, hard cash) more similarly than monolinguals.

One theory on why this might be is that there’s increased psychological distance when speaking a language that isn’t your mother tongue. Researchers in the spending study posited that subjects had less of an emotional reaction to things heard in their second (or third, or fourth) language, perhaps allowing for a more levelheaded decision.

More recently and perhaps most importantly, it’s been found that people who learn a second language, even in adulthood, can better avoid cognitive decline in old age. In fact, when everything else is controlled for, bilinguals who come down with dementia and Alzheimer’s do so about four-and-a-half years later than monolinguals.

Dr. Thomas Bak, a lecturer in the philosophy, psychology, and language sciences department at the University of Edinburgh, conducted the study and found that level of education and intelligence mattered less than learning a second language when it came to delaying cognitive decline.

“It’s not the good memory that bilinguals have that is delaying cognitive decline,” Bak told me. “It’s their attention mechanism. Their ability to focus in on the details of language.”

Polyglots tend to be good at paying attention in a wide variety of ways, especially when performing visual tasks (like searching a scene or a list for a specific name or object) and when multitasking, which, according to Bak’s theory, is likely improved thanks to the practice of mentally switching between one’s native and foreign language while learning the foreign language.

This is great news for anyone who is multi-lingual, but, really, it is positive news for everyone. The dementia-delaying effects of learning a second language are not contingent on becoming fluent; it just matters that a person tries to learn it. Even if you’re still confounding your ’s and oui’s, as Bak says, “Just having the basics of those linguistic connections can delay dementia.”

Plus, speaking more than one language means you’ll have access to all sorts of new words. So the next time you need to, let’s say, express your burning desire to squeeze a fat baby’s legs, you’ll know what to say. That’s gigil in Filipino.

 

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Read the original article.