Health News Digest

February 21, 2011

You Can Maintain—And Even Improve—Your Cognitive Fitness As You Age

Cognitive fitness chart

By  Michael D. Shaw

To their credit, many Baby Boomers—members of the cohort born between 1946 and 1964—seem to be following Dylan Thomas, and are not going “gentle into that good night.” A sizable number of Boomers frequent health clubs, take supplements, are wary of heavy pharmaceuticals, and carefully scrutinize what they eat.

And now, as they age, they are turning their attention to cognitive fitness, as well.

Cognitive fitness” can be defined as an evaluation of the overall functioning of mental processes such as comprehension, decision-making, problem-solving, and learning. Of special interest are the capacities of abstraction, generalization, and meta-reasoning—which all aid in the ability to assess situations, solve problems creatively, and act decisively.

Or, to quote cognitive fitness gurus Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts—from their breakthrough article in Harvard Business Review—“Cognitive fitness is a state of optimized ability to remember, learn, plan, and adapt that is enhanced by certain attitudes, lifestyle choices, and exercises. The more cognitively fit you are, the better you will be able to make decisions, solve problems, and deal with stress and change.”

Up until recently, measurement of cognitive fitness focused mostly on its temporary impairment caused by stress and lack of sleep, and how that might affect such individuals as astronauts, pilots, air traffic controllers, truck drivers, shift workers, and mountain climbers. In fact, NASA funded the development of a software package called the MiniCog Rapid Assessment Battery (MRAB).

The original hand-held MRAB enabled someone to test his own alertness quickly and easily. Based on the results, users might realize they should take a nap or drink coffee instead of proceeding with any sort of risky or complex activity. Los Angeles based Criteria Corporation has expanded on the basic MRAB concept to build a business that concentrates on web-based employee testing services.

OK, but what about us older folks?

The good news is that much of the conventional wisdom has been proven wrong. A proliferation of neuroscience research in the 1990s indicates that the brain does not necessarily diminish with age. Neither do our neurons have to die off as we get older.

Gilkey and Kilts note that “[A] number of regions of the brain important to functions such as motor behavior and memory can actually expand their complement of neurons as we age.”

They go on to emphasize that such neurogenesis is “profoundly affected by the way you live your life,” and offer some strategies that can benefit older adults.

  • Use experiences to grow your brain
  • Work hard at play
  • Search for patterns
  • Seek novelty

In short, you can stay sharp by exercising your brain. A compelling example is Richard Wetherill, a retired university lecturer and accomplished chess player, who could always see eight moves ahead. In early 2001, he noticed that he could only see five moves ahead, and assumed that something was wrong. But, he passed all the neurological tests with flying colors, and showed normal brain scans.

Two years later, he died, and an autopsy revealed advanced-stage Alzheimer’s, which would have rendered most individuals cognitively nonfunctional. From all indications, Wetherill’s mental exercise routine kept him from such a decline.

People are becoming more interested in having their cognitive fitness evaluated. A promising approach is being offered by the Developmental Assessment & Intervention Center of Bedford Hills, NY. DAIC is best known for its work with children, and has recently introduced its Cognitive Fitness System.

All testing is done in person, and is administered by licensed Ph.D. psychologists. Subjects are evaluated in five major areas:

  • Memory efficiency
  • Language skills
  • Attention/Executive functioning
  • Visual/Perceptual abilities
  • Social/Emotional functioning

These major areas, in turn, are rated within a number of sub-categories. A detailed report is provided to the client, which also includes an informative bar graph style chart, highlighting performance in all the sub-categories. Recommendations on therapeutic strategies—and providers—are also given.

As to Dylan Thomas, he himself did not go gentle into that good night. Rather, he literally became a legend in his own time—as much for his poetry as for the boisterousness of his life—dying at age 39.