Archive for December, 2006

Do mental workouts keep your mind sharp?

Yesterday when I saw a Christmas card in our post-box, I wondered who went right down to the wire with their mailings this year. It was my last card returned for lack of address. I only put the name on the envelope — no postal address. Could this be a sign of my mental decline after age 50? Earlier this month (Dec. 2), I watched NBC’s “Saturday Today” with interest as a fellow only a few years older than me took a test for his brain age. He was horrified to be rated in his ’80’s mentally, but after a session of exercises prescribed by Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA’s Center on Aging, this guy got down to near the ideal of 20 years of brain age.

The ideas gained by men before they are twenty-five are practically the only ideas they shall have in their lives. — William James (1893)

According to an article by Debbie Geiger of Best of New Orleans, Dr. Small recommends cross-training for the brain, for example by solving visual mazes with your right-brain and completing crossword puzzles with your left. To facilitate mental workouts, you could make use of resources on the internet, such as Happy Neuron, or buy a new computer game by Nintendo called Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! It includes Sudoku math puzzles and word quizzes, and the software tracks your progress over time. More recently the game-maker released Big Brain Academy (see review by Walter Mossberg of the Chicago Sun-Times). Both of these Nintendo games are based on the theories of Japanese brain researcher Ryuta Kawashima. Ironically, he initially earned the ire of the software publishers by claiming that their computer games stunted brain development.

It seems prudent that, before investing money in software and time to do mental exercises, one should see whether scientific evidence provides any support for such expenditures. This week the Washington Post reported positively on mental exercise based on a randomized controlled trial detailed in the Dec. 20 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. It involved several thousand aging adults (over 65 years) who were divided into groups trained for memory, reasoning, and spead processing. Compared to a control group that received no brain training, immediate improvements were seen by most individuals. However, after five years (with some ‘booster training’ along the way), the effect was only significant for the reasoning group.

These results stike me as being somewhat ambiguous over the long haul. For a more balanced view, I recommend reading Mental Exercise and Mental Aging Evaluating the Validity of the “Use It or Lose It” Hypothesis by Timothy A. Salthouse, which appeared in the March 2006 of Perspectives on Psychological Science. This is a very detailed article that thoroughly reviews relevant studies. In the end, the author’s professional opinion is that the benefits of mental exercise hypothesis stem more from optimistic hope than empirical reality. However he suggests that, one should “continue to engage in mentally stimulating activities because even if there is not yet evidence that it has beneficial effects in slowing the rate of age-related decline in cognitive functioning, there is no evidence that it has any harmful effects, the activities are often enjoyable and thus may contribute to a higher quality of life, and engagement in cognitively demanding activities serves as an existence proof — if you can still do it, then you know that you have not yet lost it.” Sounds good to me, but then what do I know (other than what I knew at age 20-25)?

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Stress as factor for cardiac arrest felled along with author who did not sweat the small stuff?

I’m a hard-working guy who suffered a heart attack at age 51 despite not smoking, and staying in shape via regular exercise. Although it was hard to overlook the genetic factor of my younger brother preceding me with his own myocardial infarction (as the cardiologists refer to it), many acquaintances figured that both of us probably created our own problem by being too stressed. After reading this morning that Richard Carlson, author of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, passed away on Wednesday due to cardiac arrest, I feel less sure than ever that stress creates heart problems. Ironically at this time just before Christmas, Carlson, only 45 years of age, died en route to an a New York city promotional appearance for his new book Don’t Get Scrooged: How to Thrive in a World Full of Obnoxious, Incompetent, Arrogant and Downright Mean-Spirited People.

The American Heat Association in their detailing of Risk Factors and Coronary Heart Disease puts stress near the bottom of the list and speculates that people suffering from this may overeat, start smoking or smoke more than they otherwise would — all more likely to create problems than stress itself. The most stress that I ever experienced was driving into Manhattan for a Broadway play and getting stuck in a traffic jam entering the Lincoln Tunnel. I made the mistake of being ‘Minnesota nice’ by letting someone wedge into line ahead of me. This precipitated widespread honking of horns from irate New Yorkers waiting impatiently all around me. A cursory internet search on stress studies dredged up Exposure to New York City as a Risk Factor for Heart Attack Mortality. It seems that I cannot yet rest my case against stress being a factor for causing heart problems, especially since Carlson was heading for New York when he suffered his cardiac arrest. 🙁

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Murderous statistics?

An assistant criminology professor at St. Cloud State University claims that a string of drowning deaths of white, male students from Upper Midwest colleges does not exhibit a random pattern based on location, race and other characteristics, including the phase of the moon. However, an article by Todd Richmond of the Associated Press cites opposing views by two professors from University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who said that “It is often harder to accept explanations that hit close to home — explanations that involve actions we ourselves have engaged in that put us at risk.” Nevertheless, it is tempting to speculate, as a criminology student at St. Cloud does, that a predator prowls the Interstate 94 highway making stops at near-campus bars to look for inebriated young men.

Geographic profiling evidently is well-accepted as an enforcement tool as evidenced by its use by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). A Canadian police detective, Kim Rossmo, wrote the book on this subject. He details how analyis of the location and distribution of crimes can help pinpoint a murderer such as the Yorkshire Ripper. According to Rossmo, there is no such thing as a “random homicide.” The problem in this case though is whether the deaths are due to homicide or random accidents to a susceptible population — young male college students in river towns.

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Holiday fun — tossing leftover fruit cakes with trebuchet

Hank loads a missile

Hank loads a missile

Not sure what to do with that rock-hard holiday cake riddled with fluorescent fruit? Fling it! But don’t just hand toss that fruit cake, use medieval missile-hurling machinery called a trebuchet. Unlike a catapult that operates on tension or torsion (a heavy rubber-band is used for scale models), a trebuchet uses a counterweight as its energy source. I got the one pictured from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSM&T) in Rapid City for purposes of experimental design. However, I never considered using it to launch fruit cakes like they do at city celebrations in Pepin, Wisconsin. The record for flinging these unappreciated holiday confections is claimed by Manitou, Colorado at their Great Fruitcake Toss — over 1000 feet! This was done not by a trebuchet, but an “air powered pneumatic device.” Perhaps this could be the gift for the gadget-loving guy who already owns everything — useful for getting rid of unwanted holiday gifts.

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