How to keep your brain young

How to have your brain age well...
28 November 2017

Interview with 

Dr John Medina, University of Washington School of Medicine


Is there anything you can do to help your brain age well? John Medina is a biologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine and he’s the author of the book Brain Rules for ageing Well. He took Georgia Mills through what happens to our brains as we age and some things do actually get better…

John - There are some things that improve so there are some good news. You experience fewer negative emotions as you get older so you tend to look on the ‘glass as being half full.’ That’s a little odd, most people think as you get more like Uncle Scrooge than Bob Cratchit but, in fact, you do get more optimistic. Seniors tend to score higher on agreeableness tests, they’re more emotionally stable, so those things actually start to improve.

Some things that stay the same is your access to your vocabulary; what we call ‘semantic memory’ which is memory for a thing. And ‘procedural memory,’ this is how when you get into a car you know how to drive a stick shift. There’s a motor memory involved with that, so that tends to stay the same.

Georgia - But it’s not all sunshine and roses…

John - Your ‘working memory’ begins to fail. That’s what we used to call ‘short term memory.’ So your ability to hold something in your head for a period of time begins to erode. This may have happened to you Georgia where you go walking down to the basement to fetch something, and as soon as you down there you completely forget why you went down there. Well that is, in part, a failure of working memory, so that erodes.

Another memory gadget that erodes is what we call “episodic memory.” Episodic memory is the ability to remember an episode so that usually means there’s a person. If it’s you it’s ‘autobiographical memory’, and another one is the ‘tip of the tongue’ problem - that’s what we call it. Its formal term is ‘phonological access.’ That get’s worse as you get older. So there's memory issue that begin to fail as you age.

One of the things that is part of the bad news is a gadget we call ‘executive function.’ Executive function has two founding components to it: one of them is cognitive control, which is the ability to focus on things and the ability to create a detailed heuristic out of a series of inputs. Executive function does begin to erode when you get older so there’s forms of that as well. Which is why, what’s so interesting is we should probably get to the good news pretty soon otherwise this will just be one depressing interview.

Georgia - Good point. So on that note John, how do we keep our brains healthy? Take it away…

John - Here’s a really good way to improve executive function: exercise. Aerobic exercise, even if you just have to get splashed into a pool and wiggle around for a while. The fact that you’re doing aerobic exercise, even moderate aerobic exercise - you need about 150 minutes in a 7 day period is both necessary and sufficient to improve executive function in older populations.

Another one, interestingly enough, is dancing. In fact, when I was busy writing this book, Georgia, I began thinking is there any combination of behaviours that you could do all at once, and if you are at all ambulatory and can go dancing. This was done with randomised blinded tests. Their posture and balance improved by 25% and they reduced the number of falls by 37% just by getting out there on the dance floor.

You can also improve certain types of executive function with dancing and the interesting part of dancing is that is does something absolutely magical. You can show that if you reinstitute physical, non-exploitive touch in a senior you begin to have lots of cognitive things go back online, including parts of executive function.

Georgia - Oh right. So have you taken up salsa dancing since you wrote this book then?

John - Oh man… I’m going to. I’m a horrible dancer. In fact, the only thing I’ve ever done in my entire life was just wiggle in front of somebody.

Georgia- Dancing, or even light wiggling… check. What’s next?

John - Remember I talked to you about the fact that episodic memory also declines with age. This is the memory for episodes, so characters that are interacting through time. That actually declines with age fairly substantially, but there is a way to improve episodic memory specifically that has been tested in randomised blinded trials. You need to regularly get into arguments with people who don’t agree with you. As long as you guys can remain friends, one of the best ways to improve episodic memory is to argue with somebody in such fashion that it forces you to get on your game. The more intellectually vital you become, the more powerful your arguments are, and the friendlier they are in good discussions, you can actually use that to improve episodic memory.

One of best things, I think, you can do in the UK is to have friends at a dinner table. One who believes that Brexit is the best thing that ever happened, and one who believes Brexit is next to the apocalypse, and have em go at it.

Georgia - Disclaimer: we will not be held responsible for any family fighting that breaks out over the dinner table.

Now what about brain training?

John - I’m hopefully a nice guy, but I’m a pretty grumpy scientist and I’ve a really low tolerance for uncontrolled or uncontrollable variables. And one that really got under my craw was when I would hear these advertisements that seniors who do Sudoku are going to have wildly better brains. Seniors that do crossword puzzles are going to have wildly better processing speeds. There’s a lot of claims that have been made.

When you dig into that literature, the only thing that you find is that Sudoku increases your ability to do well on Sudoku. It’s what we call near transfer effects. But when you ask the question: does doing Sudoku or doing crossword puzzles translate into other cognitive components that have nothing to do with Sudoku, like does it improve your memory, does it change processing speed unrelated to numbers?

The answer is… no.

What you really want is that you want to be able to play a game and then have it improve your memory so that when you’re doing other activities, those activities improve also. That would be the gold standard for far transfer effects.

Now here’s something that’s interesting. There are some things that do far transfer effects, and they’re video games. One of the reasons why in the chapter, one of the most delightful chapters I wrote in it, I was a graphics artists and an animator before I was a scientists and so I have a love affair with all things animated and even digital.

This was the first and only time I have ever seen a video game literally, Georgia, on the cover of Nature. And I thought to myself: oh my gosh there's a brain scan there and I though John Maddox the former editor of Nature is probably rolling over in his grave. But here it was, a video game on the cover of Nature. And the reason why it’s there is that it was the first exercise that has been shown to have far transfer effects in seniors.

Executive function is what was measured - remember that’s that cognitive control and emotional regulation, ability to shift attentional states. What they did is they got a bunch of 73 year olds who played the thing for a month, and then they looked at a sociometric tests called “working memory with distraction,” so it’s an ability to look at short terms memory and distractibility. What they showed is that those seniors, those 73 year olds who played that video game got what you would call a plus 100 on the score. And without the training, the controls that didn’t have exposure to the neuro racer video game got a minus 100. And here’s the big deal, that’s a far transfer effect because that video game, you’re just playing a video game, and yet it has effects in other cognitive domains. The reason why it got on the cover of Nature, I’m convinced, is that those boosts were still stable six months later - no kidding.

Georgia - Oh Wow! Thats a long time. And they weren’t playing for those six months?

John - That’s right, yeah. They only played it for one month and were still able to show, so there are things that seniors can do. I’m convinced that the nursing home of the future is going to have a whole room devoted to video games of this calibre.


What video games would be good to play?

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