Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Work til you die, if you wanna keep that memory!

Well, it never ceases to amaze or confound me when I see what passes for some of the latest economic research. According to today's Denver Post ('Research: Memory Likely to Retire When Worker Does', p. 4A) American workers had best not retire too early if they want to retain any brain function - including memory and reasoning ability. Those who do, will likely have their minds turn to mush before they can say "What did I just say?"

Anyway, two economists (not psychologists!) in a paper headed "Mental Retirement" and published in The Journal of Economic Perspectives, have plumbed a collection of data from the U.S., England and eleven other nations to indicate that the earlier people retire the more quickly their memories lapse and their overall brain function goes to seed.

The implication, according to the authors and others, is that there really appears to be something to the "use it or lose it" saying. Thus, if people wish to preserve their memories and reasoning ability they really do need to keep mentally active. The reason is that many researchers (mainly in psychology, as it should be) have found that retired people as a group tend to do less well on cognitive tests still working.

The authors quickly note, however, that this could be because those whose memories and thinking skills are declining are more likely to retire early.


But what about all those near retirement and stuck in dumbed-down jobs like sanitation worker, gardener or burger flipper? Does the same template apply there? I wonder! It seems to me that preserving thinking and memory are best attained when one is already in a thought-intensive job that requires high level mental skills and memory. I simply don't believe that 95% of American jobs permit this. (The service sector overall, has become the last respite for millions, once all the high level engineering and manufacturing jobs were sent oversease, thanks to hotshot investment bannkers that sold American companies for a pittance to corporate transnationals, or to kowtow to Wall Street).

I believe the central point is that anyone who retires will fare much better mentally if they keep their brain active, irrespective of whether working or not. The converse is to condemn millions to mental mush merely because there is no work available and they had no choice other than to leave the workforce.

But leaving the workforce doesn't mean your brain has to veg out and go to seed! There are a hundred and one ways to keep occupied mentally that will keep one's brain sharp even if one no longer works. Hint: most TV isn't one!

I think the best option for most people, if they are willing and able, is to take one of the free online courses in any of hundreds of subjects offered at MIT, and Yale. There's everything from Bibilical textual and historical analysis, to economics, to modern biology and the philosophy of Death (at Yale). MIT has dozens of video courses in math, physics, and astronomy as well as basic quantum mechanics (as part of their Intro chemistry courses). All of these are guaranteed to feed the brain, keep it nourished and sustained.

There is also much to say of reading, across broad levels and areas - not just one trick pony like the Bible. People need to read far beyond the Bible! Hundreds of low cost books are available on amazon.com as well as lulu.com from a variety of authors.

If reading and courses from major universities are too passive, then start blogging! Pick a topic, or make your blog eclectic as this one is. (Note also: my blog often contains tests, and exercises, like in math, to test readers' sharpness).

The main key, as the authors of the piece and others note, is not get bogged down in one thing. As they note, doing Sudoku every day is only assured of making you great at Sudoku. Same with crossword puzzles, or other gimmicky puzzles. In all such cases a person merely improves at one narrow task, but doesn't appreciably enhance cognitive skills.

My other suggestion for oldsters (or those retired early, not necessarily old) is that instead of wasting time doing Sudoku or crosswords, use the time instead for playing computer chess, or even better 'GO'. Most such games have the option to start at a "novice" level (since the computer tends to move at uncanny speeds in either game, often upsetting twitchy humans saddled with emotions) and then you can move up.

The pinnacle is the 'Grand Master" level and believe me one gets a real charge to beat his machine at this level, even if only once every 100 or so games. Ditto with 'GO'.

The bottom line is there's no excuse for any person's brain to morph into jello, even if not working. One thing the economist authors did get right: if you don't use it you certainly will lose it.

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