The Elderly Brain

Question: Do brain gyms work?


Sam Wang: I’ve never been to a brain gym. And I think it will be a fun experience. So brain gyms, obviously, play in a fear that by not being mentally engaged, we will somehow, it’s a use it or lose it kind of thing. And there’s a grain of truth to this, which is that one of the things that you can do to keep your brain happy and functioning well as you get older is to have a mentally engaged lifestyle. So the number one correlative retained cognitive function as people get older is educational status.

And it’s not clear whether that’s because being educated gives you the tools to lead a more engaged life or whether, maybe, if you’re mentally engaged person, you might be the kind of person who would go to college and graduate schools. It’s a chick and egg problem.

But in either case, that’s the number one correlate. In general, individual tasks that you learn when you play brain games, you go to brain gyms tend to only increase your capacity at that particular task or task of that type and they tend to lead to small benefits. And so, I think a lot of these exercises don’t lead to large benefits.

Now, it could be that doing a lot of these different things is something like a full body workout, then it could be that there’s some moderate benefit. But I think the people who go to those should really remember not only the intellectual principle, right, a sound mind but also the sound body principle. And so, I think any such gym should include what we talked about earlier, fitness training.


Question: How do brains decline?


Sam Wang: So there’re different kinds of cognitive memory loss that occur with aging. Certain kinds of memory loss such as forgetting where your car keys are part of the normal process of getting older. In fact, memory peak surprisingly early at the age of 30 and then declines gradually with time. So forgetting where your keys are is not a cause of particular concern.

Then, there’s dementia, which is forgetting, say, that you, like the old saying goes that if you forget where your glasses are, that’s normal memory loss. If you forget the fact that you wear glasses, that’s dementia.

So just normal memory loss is not a cause of concern. It’s not well-understood exactly what physically underlies this, although plausible candidates are loss of the brain’s ability to form new connections or to easily modulate the weight of the connections between nerve cells, those are called synaptic weights.

And so, those will be the candidates for why the brain seems to be less plastic in certain ways as we get older. But it’s not super well-understood. Now, there’s another category of memory loss. The severe decline in the form of dementia. And the thing that’s understood there is that you can look in the brains of people who after death or diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s disease and they have plaques and tangles that appear to be either the causes of cell death or perhaps the residue, the aftermath of cell death. And these plaques and tangles seem to be at the root of certain kinds of cognitive loss. And that’s something that’s studied now. And it’s a pretty active area of research.

And the current goal is to try to find ways to [stay off] those cognitive losses by even a few years. Because as we live longer, having a few years becomes very important.


Sam Wang says a mentally engaged lifestyle is the best training for the brain.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

Top Video Splash
  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and things that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way.".

A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

Strange Maps
  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
Keep reading Show less

Think you’re bad at math? You may suffer from ‘math trauma’

Even some teachers suffer from anxiety about math.

Image credit: Getty Images
Mind & Brain

I teach people how to teach math, and I've been working in this field for 30 years. Across those decades, I've met many people who suffer from varying degrees of math trauma – a form of debilitating mental shutdown when it comes to doing mathematics.

Keep reading Show less