Interesting that in his gloomy list of things to expect in old age, a failing mind was not included. Alzheimer's was obviously not known about. Perhaps it wasn’t because they didn’t have the life expectancy that we have today and so people didn’t live long enough to get it, or perhaps they just didn’t recognise it. You may know more about this than I do.
But every now and then I come across articles that promote the idea that if we are to survive in old age, and work to combat such mind-sapping diseases such as Alzheimer's, then exercising the mind is essential. It is something I’ve felt strongly about for a long time. In my own personal regime I normally have two or three books on the go – reading stimulates the mind. My wife insists I keep on taking a paper to maintain I have a break in the early part of the day, but that break includes doing the daily Sudoku, and a crossword, just minor stuff but enough to challenge the mind and keep it ticking over.
Many years ago I sat in on a lecture by an Oxbridge professor (sorry can’t remember which one he came from – it was thirty years ago!!!) and he likened the brain to a muscle and his message was, the more you use it the healthier it is likely to be. Be aware that your brain will respond to your general state of health. I am aware that when I am tired and feeling lethargic, I have trouble with crosswords and can’t remember things. It’s not that I’ve a bad memory; it’s simply that I’m tired. You can buy CD’s these days to run on your computer with mind games on them – worthwhile doing! (Ah, yes, it was back in article 5 on the Memory that I wrote about this – but it does bear repeating.)
I think an alert mind also helps a sense of general well-being and different people try different things. Some people play chess – I have great admiration for chess players, I can play but I’m too impatient. Some people learn a new language. I can speak a smattering of French but beyond that I’m pretty rubbish at languages. Now I say these things because we don’t all have to go down the same path and so different things will appeal to different people. My wife knits. She says it is mindless and she does it while watching TV, but I’ve seen her pouring over complicated patterns. How she does it I really don’t know.
There was a blow-up in the press fairly recently when a couple of Sky football commentators were caught out making rude noises about a woman linesman who obviously got an offside call wrong. One of these two bright sparks commented, “Can you believe that? A woman linesman. Women don’t know the offside rule.” That got a page in the paper! Of course it was good old-fashioned male prejudice and the male-female jokes that have appeared on this site in the past show that the gender war is alive and flourishing despite what the politically correct media may say. I have no problem with being the butt of jokes whether for being old or for being a man; humour exercises the mind and some people can’t see something funny because they just can’t be bothered to think about it. But going back to the female linesman, don’t tell me that she has a mind-blockage that stops her understanding the offside rule. That is considerably less complicated than my wife’s knitting pattern which I think would leave most men spluttering. It’s all in the mind!
If you don’t like reading, playing chess, learning a new language or knitting, there a plenty of other things you can do to exercise your mind like.... well, I expect there are if you think about it. Agatha Christie novels for instance, if you are a fan, stir up the little grey cells as you had to wend your way along the tortuous route of murder suspects. Somebody once said, “Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind; it forces you to stretch your own.” That needs to be read with the warning from Albert Einstein: “Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.” So, don’t just read, but also think, is the message that comes across. Reading the contents of daily papers possibly does little to stimulate the brain – especially if you are reading the tabloids!
If we take the professor’s description of the brain as a muscle (although I think modern thinking would change that), then without doubt anything that makes you think will be exercising this ‘muscle’ and exercise is healthy. I don’t know who said it but I like the quote, “Education's purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” An ‘open mind, that is a thought to conjure with! How many of us have fixed opinions and fixed ideas, never open to alternative ways of thinking. Prejudice is the province of the fearful, the essence of a closed mind.
To give a final illustration, let me tell you about Mavis and Maude (names changed), both in their eighties and both in care homes. Mavis never reads a book, watches mindless games shows on daytime TV, and takes all her opinions from her bigoted son who visits her twice a month. Maude, by comparison, reads a ‘broadsheet newspaper’ every day, does crosswords and a variety of other word puzzles regularly, knits and does crochet, plays both Bridge and Whist, discusses the news with the care workers and clearly has a bright and spritely mind. To ask the obvious, who has the more healthy mind and who is less likely to succumb to Alzheimer's or some other mind-crippling disease? Answers on a postcard to...
Quote: “If I had to live my life again I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied could thus have been kept active through use.”
(Source: Charles Darwin from Autobiography, 1887)
When we wrote on memory (no.5) we added a postscript with a quote about memory. Here are some more from, I suggest, some people with very active minds!
American biblical scholar Robert Dick Wilson learned 45 ancient languages and dialects.
A group of Jewish memory experts memorized the 12 large volumes of the Babylonian Talmud.
Arturo Toscanini was reputedly able to study a symphony score and file it away in his memory, perfect to the last note.
10. Maintaining an Active Mind
I have the feeling I’ve written about this before even though I’ve looked back through my writings and can’t find it. That’s the problem with getting older; the memory isn’t as good as it used to be (but I do remember writing about memory!!!!) Now maintaining an active mind and maintaining memory do tend to go together.
John Newton, back in the 1700s wrote, “Old age abates, and gradually destroys, the relish of such earthly comforts as might be otherwise enjoyed. Pains, infirmities, loss of sleep, the failure of sight and hearing, and all the senses–are harbingers, like Job’s messengers, arriving in close succession to tell him that death is upon his progress, and not far distant!” Sorry, shades of the last article there and that had the potential for being gloomy!