October 20, 2008
Table of Contents
- Aging, Thinking, and Feelings (Introduction to
- Searching for Brain Health (Improving
- Chatting for Brain Health (More on exercising
- Brain-Healthy Eating (Think fish)
- Happiness (How does it evolve with age?)
- Happiness Indicators (Thought for the day)
Aging, Thinking, and Feelings
For many of us as we grow older, cognitive health is increasingly on
our minds -- and any play on words contained in that statement is
intended! In this issue of Experience! we will explore the
findings of three research projects that suggest practical keys to
preserving and improving brain function with age.
At the same time, emotions such as contentment and satisfaction with
life are closely associated with overall mental health and psychological
well-being. The author of the paper discussed in our article "Happiness"
was quoted thus by Newswise, sourcing the University of Chicago News
Office: "Understanding happiness is important to understanding quality
Let's take a closer look at both of these related topics.
Searching for Brain Health
It's been all over the television news reports: Searching online may
be healthful for one's brain, and that applies not only to the younger
generation but to older adults as well.
findings spring from research led by Dr. Gary Small of UCLA, published
in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, and discussed in a
recent issue of the Scientific American Mind.
The study involved 24 men and women ages 55 to 78 who were separated
into two groups: (1) those with very little computer experience and (2)
those with advanced Internet-searching skills. The subjects performed
certain tasks while in an fMRI scanning machine, which detected their
brain activity patterns. For example, one task was a simple reading
exercise -- in other words, the participants read pages that were
presented in typical book layout format. The results were predictable:
Activation was observed in the areas of the brain that serve vision,
language, and reading. All of the participants responded similarly,
possibly because both groups were proficient, experienced readers.
However, when Web-searching tasks were introduced, uniformity between
the two groups vanished. The participants were asked to conduct Web
searches on topics such as choosing a suitable automobile or the
potential benefits of drinking coffee. Of course, the same brain areas
that are used for reading were again activated. In the technologically
advanced group, there was also tremendous activation in the frontal
brain regions that control higher order thinking such as complex
reasoning and decision-making. Compared to the technologically
inexperienced group, the computer "veterans" demonstrated more than
double the level of brain activation while searching the Web on Google.
Researchers theorized that the dissimilarity between the groups might be
due to the disparity in their familiarity with and understanding of the
Internet-searching process. Indeed, given five days to practice and
develop their Web-searching skills, the inexperienced group did begin to
display increased activity in their frontal brain areas.
Dr. Small noted that the brain is extraordinarily plastic and it is
never too late for it to learn new tasks, according to the UCLA
publication the Daily Bruin. Quoted in AOL News, he encouraged older
adults to learn how to use search engines, saying, "This could be
exercising their brain and their neural circuitry in a way that's
Still, as reported by the Daily Bruin, Dr. Small stresses that people
need to strike a healthy balance when it comes to their reliance on
digital technology. While computer use can sharpen cognitive abilities,
it should not be pursued at the expense of human interactions. The need
to stay connected with humanity, including face-to-face contacts, cannot
be replaced -- which leads to our next article.
Chatting for Brain Health
an interesting scenario which was described by the Pulse health and
science news service: You bump into a neighbor while checking your
mailbox and wind up "shooting the breeze" with him or her about nothing
in particular for ten minutes. You just wasted ten minutes, right?
Wrong, according to research published in the Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin. On the contrary, ten minutes of talking in person
or on the telephone may improve memory and promote intellectual
performance as much as working a crossword puzzle.
The investigation, headed by University of Michigan psychologist Oscar
Ybarra, analyzed approximately 3,500 subjects ages 24 to 96. The
researchers studied participants' social interactions and tested their
working memories. The results: Regardless of their age, the more social
contact participants maintained, the higher their level of mental
In another Pulse report, the issue of "silent brain infarcts" was
addressed. Silent brain infarcts are small lesions, or injuries, in
brain tissue which can only be seen on scans.
they have been connected to dementia and to a decline in thinking
abilities. Researchers wanted to know whether eating fish, widely
believed to be beneficial for the brain, might impact the development of
A recent study published in the journal Neurology looked at more than
2,000 relatively healthy senior adults, most of whom were in their
middle seventies. They underwent brain scans at the beginning of the
research project and again after the passage of five years.
Participants who consumed either baked or broiled tuna (as well as other
types of fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids) at least three times
per week were found to be 26 percent less likely to have brain lesions,
compared to persons who only ate such fish once per month or less
No benefit was associated with having fried fish. However, eating the
right kind of fish -- properly prepared -- even just once per week was
seen to decrease the risk for brain lesions by 13 percent.
A major study completed at the University of Chicago and published
in the journal American Sociological Review has concluded that Americans
grow happier with age, according to a recent release by Newswise. The
journal article was authored by Yang Yang, assistant professor of
sociology, and is entitled "Social Inequalities in Happiness in the
United States, 1972-2004: An Age-Period-Cohort Analysis."
as one of the most thorough and painstaking evaluations of happiness in
America, this study utilized data compiled since 1972 by the General
Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center (which is
supported by the National Science Foundation). The methodology, although
implemented on a grand scale, was refreshingly straightforward. In live
interviews, large samples of the population were asked:
"Taken all together, how would you say things are these days -- would
you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?"
Regarding racial groups, Yang found that among young adults the
happiest are white women, followed in order by white men, African
American women, and African American men. However, those discrepancies
actually evaporate over the years as happiness increases.
One reason why people may become happier over time, according to Yang,
is that aging is associated with greater maturity which, in turn, may
improve one's sense of well-being. Another potential contributor, Yang
explains, is that aging may also bring better access to health care
through programs such as Medicare.
Interestingly, Yang's analysis indicated that "baby boomers" (the
generation born from 1946-1964) ranked as the least happy among those
surveyed. Quoted by Newswise, she says, "This is probably due to the
fact that the generation as a group was so large, and their expectations
were so great, that not everyone in the group could get what he or she
wanted as they aged due to competition for opportunities. This could
lead to disappointment that could undermine happiness."
Considering that the data spanned 33 years of history, it is not
surprising that Yang detected upswings in happiness during periods
characterized by widespread economic prosperity. For instance, she noted
that the year 1995 was a very good one in terms of perceived personal
The excellent news coming out of this study is that happiness increases
with age and that, in fact, our oldest citizens are the happiest
Americans of all.
Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910) was the American author, journalist,
and humorist better known as "Mark Twain." His celebrated comment on one
of the more obvious markers of aging seems exceptionally appropriate for
this issue of Experience!
"Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been."
-- Mark Twain, Following the
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