In pursuit of a more reliable mind

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Everyone is concerned about their memories, at least everyone over the age of 50. So here we all are, slogging our way through the New York Times crossword, doing our aerobic walks and popping all kinds of expensively dubious pills.

But does any of this really work?

If anyone would know it would be Cathryn Ramin. She is a well-regarded journalist who also happens to be of "a certain age" and plagued by her own uncertain memory. She was concerned. Besides a good pen and an ethical compass, a journalist does need her memory. She decided to make herself the research subject of her own investigation into what works and what doesn't in shoring up one's flagging memory. The result is "Carved in Sand," a book on her "journey in pursuit of a more reliable mind." It has struck a cord; her book is now 34th on the New York Times bestseller list and climbing.

I was keen on hearing from Cathryn about what really can make a difference before I spent one more Sunday morning figuring out what a Sudoku is. In an e-mail exchange, Cathryn confirmed that it is indeed important to be engaged in activities that are mentally challenging. But, she was quick to point out, not all mental challenges are created equal.

"People often confuse the endless chores of daily living with mental challenges. It's not the same! For instance, if you're a real estate attorney and you put together the same complicated deals over and over again, that's not a mental challenge. A mental challenge means doing something new, that does not come easily to you."

Something, according to Cathryn, that makes your brain ache.

"People often misinterpret this to mean that one ought to take up calculus. Not so. Scrabble, bridge, chess are all stellar because they are always different, require lots of working memory and, most important, involve social interaction. This is actually critical. Our brains were set up to interact with other human beings, and many pathways go unused when we are either isolated or too engaged with screens."

And this brought us to salsa dancing, which is why I contacted her in the first place. On Good Morning America she revealed that she had taken up the hip gyrating exercise as one of the best defenses against memory loss. Why?

"There's memorization -- you must learn and recall the steps and sequences -- and you are also involved in moving your body in space, working with your partner and not crashing in to others on the dance floor," she said.

OK, but this does sound like a lot of work. Can't I just pop one of those memory pills and be done with it?

There doesn't seem to be a lot of scientific support for them, contends Cathryn, even though Americans lay out almost $23 billion for them a year. In her book she cites some recent studies that are looking more promising, such as the University of California Irvine study where aging beagles' diets were enhanced with antioxidants, finding that old dogs could indeed learn new tricks.

I did note that one of our e-mail exchanges included a request from Cathryn to her assistant to remind her to answer my query. I found that enlightening. Perhaps one of the best ways to make sure we remember things is to have a good assistant nearby.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at For more on the topics covered in Healthspan, visit his Web site:

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