Monday, February 27, 2006

Alzheimer's and Mind Games

I read a story in the Washington Post about the link between mental and physical activity and Alzheimer's. The subtitle was "Can Exercise and Mind Games Help?" The article quoted various studies which encourage the elderly to engage in "mentally stimulating activities." Examples? "These may involve doing logic puzzles like Sudoku, reading an entire newspaper daily or going to a museum." I've read several articles like this, and whenever they prescribe mental activity for the elderly, the first items on the list are always games and reading: "Brain-stimulating activities such as newspaper-reading, card games, puzzles and draughts."

It's astonishing what casual contempt this betrays for the elderly, as well as how little we seem to expect from our own later years. The assumption is that, after retiring, older people have absolutely no purposeful activity that they might want to engage in. The mind, therefore, must be fooled into exerting itself, like a hamster running on a wheel. Further, the intellect is not supposed to be used in service of an engagement with life -- the articles never recommend using what one hopes is accumulated wisdom to interact with society, to create something, to work on any of the problems that a younger person might tackle; instead, the old are advised to manipulate numbers and letters with the sole purpose of warding off dementia.

In the second page of the Washington Post article, there is a passage about "hybrid" activities (a combination of the "mental and the social"), by which I gathered that the author meant actual living as opposed to doing the jumble. Apparently, actual living has a very positive impact on quality of life -- who knew? "Activities that seemed to confer more protection included political and cultural involvement, attending courses, going to the theater or concerts, traveling, being engaged in charity or church activities, and playing music with others." Intriguing. So they're saying that an elderly person who decides to act like her life might still be worth using -- to enjoy beauty, affect society, or learn something -- is conferring "more protection" on herself than someone nudging her brain with the daily Sudoku? Quite the bonus.

The mind game suggestion is all part of modern society's habit of addressing serious problems purely by treating the symptoms. The central problem is always ignored, or dismissed as unfixable. A lifestyle that includes virtually no purposeful physical exertion, with all of the attendant problems? Suggestion: go the gym, lift weights, play games, take vitamins.

The serious problem in this case is that our society, unlike most of its predecessors, has no real vital place for the old; we admit as much when we imply that a puzzle is the only mental activity they are likely to have on a daily basis. And although I'm sure there are plenty of complicated factors at work (some person, who has caused me a great deal of inconvenience, told me that Alzheimer's is caused mainly by aluminum pots and pans) I think it is basically true that when a person feels that he is pretty much done with life, his mind and body will follow. And I can't imagine that our society is doing anything but encouraging this capitulation in the elderly when its suggestions for better living focus largely on the diligent pursuit of the pointless.

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