Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Staying sharp at 71

     What’s a 10-letter word for Alzheimer’s prevention? Crosswords.
     It’s long been known that crossword puzzles, which require daily bursts of mental effort, reduce the chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease.
     But suppose you don’t know the name of Nick and Nora’s dog? (Asta.) And can’t name a single river in Estonia, much less a seven-letter one? (Alajõgi.)
     For those with a low tolerance for trivia, there’s another option. Community colleges and universities across the country are increasing online offerings, creating new ways for people to pump up their minds.
     At 71, Ron Johnson declines to consider himself old. More... His father is 96, he points out, and still thinks clearly. But Johnson started to worry when he had trouble remembering words. “I was so concerned that I took a memory test from my doctor. And my score was almost perfect,” said Johnson, of Rochester, Washington. What happened, Johnson said, is that his vocabulary slipped away from lack of use, just like any other skill.
     Johnson had left Washington State University in 1960, just a few credits short of graduation. He always regretted not getting a degree. To finish his education, he enrolled in online courses through WSU’s online degree program and is studying social sciences.
     The return to academia has buffed up his vocabulary. “The online courses also returned some of my cognitive powers,” he said, “because I am reading essays and then critically examining them.”
     Neurologists would say Johnson is increasing “plasticity of the brain,” which is the ability of the brain to change through learning. In the last two decades, researchers have found that the brain has the lifelong capacity to reorganize itself by generating new neurons, and forming new connections between existing cells. But, just like muscles need exercise to thrive, the brain needs challenges, whether it’s crosswords or college or figuring out how to program the Tivo.
     Johnson, who lives 350 miles away from WSU Pullman, will come to campus for the graduation ceremony.
     “I want my daughter and granddaughters to surround me when I walk down that aisle,” he said.
     How will he feel at that moment? For some things, there are no words.
     For information on online education, check out local colleges, or go to online.wsu.edu.

Story by Richard H. Miller/Center for Distance and Professional Education

No comments:

Post a Comment