Brain-tickling: n- back tasking

I’ve just returned from North Carolina, visiting my wife’s father in a nursing home. He turns 92 this Christmas. Right now, he’s recovering from a series of falls, the last one resulting in a broken ankle and hence nursing facility. Daddy is lucky in some respects, for the facility strikes me as well run, with sensitive staff (blessed with a sense of humor), decent meals even if institutional, and clean premises.

Yet in all of this, I couldn’t help taking in the white-haired residents, all of them in wheelchairs. Some seemed fixed, no movement throughout the day, heads bent, silent. One dear lady, presumably a stroke victim, courageous, tried to greet strangers, but she might well have spoken another language. In place of words, cheerily pitched sounds, but murmurings for all of that. In nearly a day at the place, I saw few visitors. If “loneliness is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every person,” as writer Thomas Wolfe held, then its apex must be old age.

And yet there are things we can do to ease our journey into our senior years. For some time, I’ve been exercising daily, and rigorously, on our elliptical machine. Now I’ve added strength exercises three times a week, using weights to enhance muscle growth. After recently taking a bone scan test, I was delighted to learn I hadn’t lost any height, an occurrence as high as 80% in seniors.

I keep up with testing in general, whether annual blood checks or colonoscopies every three years, given my family’s cancer history. I get a flu shot every fall.

I haven’t touched meat in 15-years. I learned just the other day that only 15% of vegetarians suffer heart attacks. That’s good enough for me.

So much of preserving good health lies in adopting a preventative regimen, as Medicare and health insurers now increasingly recognize and encourage.

But there’s an aspect of maintaining good health that needs more attention. Consider that half of those past 85 suffer dementia. Now that’s huge! Think of the cost and the suffering, the diminishment in human dignity. We need to exercise our minds as well as our bodies.

I subscribe to Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory. In its recent issue, the newsletter notes the success of those who exercise their brains, hence slowing down Alzheimer’s, or even preventing it. Cross word puzzles, Sudoku games, learning a language, etc., all help–and a lot. This hits my palette, for I’ve generally favored games of mental skill like chess over games of chance.

New research indicates that the key to warding off dementia lies in boosting working memory. But how best to do this?

Turns out there’s a brain exercise called n-back that not only stimulates working memory (the kind used in reasoning and solving problems), but increases IQ. Hey, it actually makes you smarter!

Well, this got me going on my own research. I even bought the iPad application N-Back Suite. It’s as gorgeous as it’s friendly to users, allowing for stretching the mind through sensory stimuli (letters, images, sounds, colors, etc.).

With n-back tasking the idea is to remember items appearing in sequences. You can adjust your speed and there are ten levels of difficulty. Most of us will be lucky to get to level 3. It’s challenging.

It’s been tried with children and young adults, too. After 30 days of exercising for 20 minutes, results showed significant gains in fluid intelligence, i.e., the ability to recognize unfamiliar patterns and solve problems. IQ scores averaged 5 point gains. These results lasted 3 months, even though the participants were no longer doing the n-tasks. MGH neuropychologist Mimi Castelo calls the results “impressive.”

If all of this interests you, here are some web sites that offer sample n-back exercises. But don’t forget the iPad application I mentioned earlier.


Good luck!

Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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