"Hey, m'love," I say to my wife, "what did I do with the
car key? I can't start the car without the car key, and if I can't
start the car, I can't go buy the things on your grocery list."
"Go take a walk around the block," she says. "That'll
help you remember where you put the car key. It might even help you
remember where you put the grocery list."
"Hah?" I say. "How could taking a walk around the block
help me remember where you hid the car key? How could it help me to
remember where you put the grocery list?"
"Because," she says, "the New York Times says so. You
know, that newspaper you always genuflect in front of before you turn
to the sports page."
"Don't make fun of the New York Times, my little sweet
patooty," I say. "Don't you know that it's the newspaper that prints
'all the news that's fit to print'? Says so right there on the first
page. Every day."
"Oh?" she says. "And what news did they find fit to print
"I don't remember," I say, "but I'm sure it was fit to
"I knew you were going to say that," she says, pulling a
N.Y. Times clipping out of her purse. "Read this. It might help you
remember where you put the car key and the grocery list. It might
even help you remember where you're going to park the car in the
grocery store's parking lot."
She hands me the clipping. It's from the Nov. 8 N.Y.
Times opinion page under the headline "Exercise on the Brain" by
Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang.
But I can't remember where I put my glasses, so she has to
read it to me. Here's the first paragraph:
"Feeling a little less mentally quick than you did a few
years ago? Maybe you are among the many people who do 'brain
exercises' like sudoku to slow the cognitive decline associated with
aging. We've got a better suggestion."
Apparently the cognitive decline is not limited to aging
English majors. The story tells us that "in the United States,
consumers are expected to spend $80 million this year on brain
exercise products, up from $2 million in 2005."
The brain exercises usually involve mind games, but Aamodt
and Wang tell us that "the belief that any single brain exercise
program late in life" can improve our memory "is almost entirely
But then they lay this on us:
"One form of training, however, has been shown to maintain
and improve brain healthphysical exercise."
Physical exercise, they tell us, helps you "to select
behavior that's appropriate to the situation, and focus on the job at
hand in spite of distractions
." It can help you keep your
"working memory, the type used to remember a house number while
walking from the car to a party."
The Truth, Mainly
And old folks who continue their physical exercise into
their 70s, Aamodt and Wang tell us, remember more than their less
"Exercise," they say, "is also strongly associated with a
reduced risk of dementia late in life. People who exercise regularly
in middle age are one-third as likely to get Alzheimer's disease in
their 70s as those who did not exercise. Even people who begin
exercising in their 60s have their risk reduced by half."
As an English major, I don't always understand what Aamodt
and Wang are telling us, but I like thinking about it. Physical
exercise is good for humans, they say, because it "slows the age-
related shrinkage of the frontal cortex."
I'm not sure where or what my frontal cortex is, but I
like thinking I can keep it from shrinking as I grow older. And my
tightwad self really gets turned on by their concluding paragraph:
"So instead of spending money on computer games or puzzles
to improve your brain's health, invest in a gym membership. Or just
turn off the computer and go for a brisk walk."
"Whaddya think?" I ask my wife. "Have we not discovered a
brave new world? Wanna go for a walk?"
"I just rode my bike ten miles," she says, "while you were
up in your cruddy little office in the library pretending you're
still an academicbut with no more papers to grade."
That's not true. I don't even remember what it's like to
grade papers. I'm going to take a walk and see if it gooses my
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail