The Truth, Mainly - 11/19/2007

Can't remember? Take a walk
by Leon Satterfield

"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 today?"

"I don't remember," I say, "but I'm sure it was fit to print."

"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 faith-based."

But then they lay this on us:

"One form of training, however, has been shown to maintain and improve brain health—physical 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."

And old folks who continue their physical exercise into their 70s, Aamodt and Wang tell us, remember more than their less active cohorts.

"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 academic—but 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 memory glands.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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