The Big Payoff

K. Warner Schaie directs one of the most extensive longitudinal research programs on intellectual functions over the adult ages. The Seattle Longitudinal Study began in 1956. More than 5,000 participants ranging in age from 22 to 95 were interviewed and tested in seven-year cycles. Results indicated that participants gained in proficiency through their early forties and then functioned at approximately the same level throughout the rest of their forties through their late fifties or sixties. As Table 7-1 indicates, most participants actually maintained stable performances on most cognitive

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Verbal Spatial Inductive Number Word Meaning Orientation Reasoning Fluency

Table 7-1 Proportion of Individuals Who Maintain Stable Levels of Performance Over Seven Years on Primary Abilities, Schaie, 1996.

abilities well into old age. As late as their sixties, most people do not show significant changes in mental abilities from the last testing. By their eighties, most people have experienced some decline in at least one area. Moreover, between the ages of 74 and 81, less than half showed mental declines on all of the mental activities tested. The other half showed declines in some but not all abilities, particularly those requiring psychomotor speed.

Other studies, such as the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA), confirm these results. The BLSA has followed more than 2,000 participants since 1958. Results indicate that as we age past our sixties, our ability to remember figures and shapes may decrease, but our vocabulary increases into our eighties and then may decrease slightly.1 This increase in our vocabulary skills is thought to be due to use and increased exposure throughout our life to words. As we age, however, many of us are not called on to practice and exercise skills such as spatial abilities, logic, and so on, and so it is thought that these skills decrease due to disuse.

Dr. Willis and Dr. Schaie wanted to determine whether modest declines in specific mental processes could be reversed in healthy individuals. This would lend greater credence to the theory that mental declines in otherwise healthy individuals could be attributed to disuse. A Primary Mental Ability Test had been administered to the subjects participating in the Seattle Longitudinal Study 14 years prior to this intervention strategy and was used as a benchmark. From this group, 229 subjects from 64 to 75 years old and in good health, who exhibited marked losses in mental functioning over the past 14 years, were selected to determine whether mental performances could be improved through tutoring and practice of skills. Dr. Schaie and Dr. Willis embarked on a training program to improve mental functioning in a set of the participants. These participants were given five one-hour sessions aimed at improving basic abilities such as inductive reasoning and spatial abilities and offered strategies for tackling tasks such as memorization. The seniors then were tested again. Their results were stunning.

After merely five one-hour training sessions, 66 percent of the seniors improved dramatically and 40 percent regained up to 14 years in mental ability.

Approximately 66 percent demonstrated significant improvement. Some 40 percent regained everything they had lost over the years, scoring as well or better than they had 14 years earlier. Still more stunning is that this advance persisted for at least seven more years without further train ing."2 When checked on seven years later, they still demonstrated a distinct advantage compared to those who had not received the training.

After seven years, without further training, these seniors maintained this improvement.

You may recall from earlier chapters that how much you, as an individual, decline is dependent on many things, such as genetics, disease, level of activity, and so on. Some of these factors, such as genetics, you obviously cannot change. K. Warner Schaie identified six of the factors associated with retaining strong mental functions that you may be able to control:

1. Absence of cardiovascular and other diseases

2. High socioeconomic status

3. Involvement in complex and intellectually stimulating environment

4. Flexible personality at midlife

5. High cognitive status of spouse

6. Maintenance of high levels of perceptual processing speed

In Chapter 6, we talked about how to control the first five factors in the list. We are going to discuss number 6 and readdress numbers 3 and 4 in this chapter within the context of training, exercising, and rejuvenating those brain cells.

In this chapter, you will have an opportunity to take a preassessment test, experience a set of training exercises, and then retest to assess your gains.

In general, to combat the effects of cognitive decline, you can

1. Accommodate: You alter the activities you used to perform. You may start to write things down to help you remember ideas that you are reading about.

2. Compensate: Use additional processes to supplement your abilities and maintain your usual activities. You

Figure 7-1 The Ugly Plate

may use glasses to allow you to read as comfortably as before or select the large-print editions.

3. Remediate: Intervene by improving the affected ability. Investigate eye surgery to fix the problem once and for all.

We have focused on compensation strategies and remediation strategies in this text. One of the methods you can use to compensate is external memory aids. One of the more interesting research studies involved the use of an ugly plate as a visual mnemonic device for seniors to use as a memory aid (see Figure 7-1). The plate was a cheap plastic three-section picnic plate in the ugliest color the researchers could find. The plate was placed in a prominent place in the home (where you couldn't possibly miss it). It could only be removed for social occasions. Items to be remembered, such as glasses or medicines, were placed on the plate. Sticky notes (in a contrasting color) with terse, one-line descriptions of a specific activity that needed to be done, were placed at odd angles on the rim of the plate. This device, which could be vividly recalled as needed, reduced the frequency of everyday memory lapses an average of 57 percent to 65 percent.3 What a wonderful idea and so simple and inexpensive an approach. Just remember that we are going for visually memorable, and the more obnoxious the color combination, the better.

Here are a few other strategies:

• Place frequently needed objects in the same place.

• Leave yourself notes.

• Twist your watch around on your wrist so that every occasion you check for the time and have to turn the watch, you can rehearse what you are trying to remember.

Now we want to give you the chance we promised you to test your cognitive abilities, learn some remediation strategies, practice them, and test your cognitive abilities again. Before you start, though, we want to remind you of a few things.

• You tested yourself already to determine whether you are an auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learner. While trying to incorporate the mental exercises and techniques that follow, try to use your preferred method of rehearsal. Also, include the other techniques as much as possible, even if they are not your preferred method. You want all of those areas recording information, and the more modes of inputting information you use, the more you should recall.

• Similar memories may be confusing due to the number of associations in your mind. Try to find the differences among the various techniques as well as the similarities.

For example, can you remember the details of the last time you went to the bank? You probably can remember going to a grandchild's recital, however. Unique situations stick in your mind, while many instances of the same situation may run together.

• If you are practicing one of the techniques or completing an exercise, distractions may make you forget where you were. So if you get lost in the middle of an exercise, perhaps you should find a good starting point and go again. Try to notice whether you lose track of what you're doing with or without distractions.

• Some information never makes it to long-term memory. Not paying adequate attention accounts for approximately 50 percent of reported memory problems. Concentrate on what you want to remember. Try to make associations and use some of the techniques previously discussed. The inability to rapidly form associations is what accounts for much of the effect of aging on measured cognitive abilities. If you need to remember something you need to do, concentrate and come up with little sayings or rhymes, or even write it down so that it will make more associations. The more you associate new information with items already firmly entrenched in your memory, the more likely you will be able to recall the new information successfully.

• One of the most common complaints by the elderly (and the young) is the increasing inability to recall names and particular words. The tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) phenomenon is when individuals know that they know the name but cannot recall it at that particular moment. Ninety-two percent of the time, when older adults say they know a name but just cannot immediately recall it, they are correct. They actually do know it. Therefore, when people say they know something, believe them. One research study demonstrated a 48 percent retrieval success rate within two to three minutes without any external aids.

These were the strategies used for successful retrieval in the study previously described:

• 27 percent use an alphabet strategy. (I know it starts with a "b.")

• 10 percent use a visualization strategy. (Where was the last time I saw those?)

• 26 percent use an association strategy. (Let's see, I know that he works with Janet...)

• 37 percent use a pop-into-the-head (in a blinding flash of light) strategy.4

So if you just know you have the answer to the exercises and games, try one of the strategies just mentioned and give yourself two to three minutes to locate and retrieve the needed information before you give up on yourself.

Are any of these strategies and techniques new? Are you learning a new skill? In the beginning, it is hard to remember details (such as how to decide what the next number in a series is), but with more repetition and experience, you can create more associations and remember strategies easily and efficiently.

Does it take longer to learn? It may while you are integrating new techniques. Don't be discouraged. Keep these tips in mind:

• Be aware. Now you know you may have to work harder.

• Pay attention. Concentrate on what you really want to remember.

• Associate. Associate what you want to know with what you already know.

• Practice remembering. Choose a technique and try it out.

Do you recall Gardner's multiple intelligences presented in Chapter 2? We used them to identify the various areas of the brain that perform different types of functions. Now here are some brief suggestions for activities to stimulate those areas of the brain. Try to incorporate as many as you can to exercise multiple areas of your brain. Choose one or two to start. Set a goal and get started. Generate as many mental connections as you can.

Spatial Intelligence

• Fly model airplanes (or sail boats).

• Arrange flowers.

S Musical Intelligence

• Develop an interest in classical music.

• Make up jingles to remember things.

• Learn to play the instrument you always wanted to learn when you were younger.

Math/Logical Intelligence

• Balance your checkbook by hand instead of using a computer.

• Play bridge or other card games.

Linguistic Intelligence

• Do crossword puzzles.

• Join a club associated with your hobby.

• Write down your memories or the memories of your ancestors, or dictate them into a recorder.

• Invite friends over for dinner and play board games (the more the board games require you to talk, the better).

• Play Scrabble™ or Scribbage™ or Password™ or Boggle™.

Kinesthetic Intelligence

• Turn on the radio and dance around the house.

• Take an advanced exercise class.

• Take up a hobby that requires detailed use of the hands, such as needlepoint.

^^ Personal Intelligence

• Volunteer at a local school.

• Write a family history.

• Plan a self-improvement program.

• Make a list of the 10 most important events in your life.

• Make a list of the 10 most important things in your life.

• Make a list of the 10 most important people in your life.

• Work for a charitable cause.

• Take a pie to a neighbor, and sit and chat a while.

• Visit someone in the hospital.

• Write a card to someone who is lonely.

Continuing-education courses, crossword puzzles, or anything that uses your brainpower could be beneficial. "Play bridge instead of bingo." According to Dr. Schaie, "The only negative we found was bingo, unless maybe you play 20 cards at once."5

So as you go through these training exercises for your mind, relax, look for associations, and try to incorporate the various learning strategies presented in Chapter 4. Dust off those neuron connections, and let's get going!

The Giffords and the Austins share a joke over the bridge table.

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