The curious world of cyberspace

Disappearing from cyberspace is a little like being a tree that falls in the forest. A very small tree. Having disappeared from cyberspace myself for a couple of weeks, I am comforted by the fact that the forest is very large.

It’s not that this space disappeared, just that Boomers and Beyond disappeared. Boomers and Beyond is a blog primarily about issues critical to over-50 generations, and it came to pass on  True/Slant.com a couple of years ago. It dealt with health care and fitness and housing choices and brain exercises and driving safety, and often diverted into rants about gay rights and abortion rights and gun control and other miscellany — because the True/Slant folks were a free-wheeling bunch and why should anybody quit worrying about rights and justice when they turn 50? All those profound words are archived in this nifty blog (this WordPress one right here) created by incredible friend-of-B&B-&-this space Mary Trigiani, so that if anyone stumbles into the forest and wants to study a small bush those twigs — OK, enough with the metaphor — are there to be read.

True/Slant didn’t actually disappear; it got bought by Forbes, and is gradually reappearing (as a New And Improved Forbes blogsite) there. Boomers & Beyond is reportedly going to reappear thereon, as soon as a contract appears. In the interim, it is just sitting there inert, and after several watchful readers noticed its inertia (posting anything new isn’t an option at True/Slant any more) I decided to venture once more into cyberspace.

It’s pleasant to meet you here. I hope we’ll meet again soon.

Aging brains can still follow the $$

day in the life: lunch money
Image by emdot via Flickr

Balancing the checkbook isn’t as easy as it used to be? You can’t remember where you put the keys? OhmyGOODness, you say, I must be getting old.

The bad news is, age happens. The good news is, it does not necessarily bring a concurrent loss in cognitive ability. Get a new calculator, maybe one with a bigger keypad. Accept the fact that you’ve been misplacing the keys, occasionally, since you started driving.  And take heart in a new study from Duke University indicating that, all things considered, age is not a determining feature in the ability to make sound economic decisions.

Just because your mother has turned 85, you shouldn’t assume you’ll have to take over her financial matters. She may be just as good or better than you at making quick, sound, money-making decisions, according to researchers at Duke University.

“It’s not age, it’s cognition that makes the difference in decision-making,” said Scott Huettel, PhD, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Duke Center for Neuroeconomic Studies. He recently led a laboratory study in which participants could gain or lose money based on their decisions.

“Once we accounted for cognitive abilities like memory and processing speed, age had nothing to do with predicting whether an individual would make the best economic decisions on the tasks we assigned,” Huettel said.

The study was published in the Psychology and Aging journal, published by the American Psychological Association.

Working with 54 older adults between 66 and 76 years old, and 58 younger adults between 18 and 35, the Duke researchers assigned a variety of economic tasks that required different types of risky decisions, so that participants could gain or lose real money.

On a bell curve of performance, there was overlap between the younger and older groups. Many of the older subjects (aged 66 to 76) made similar decisions to many of the younger subjects (aged 18 to 35). “The stereotype of all older adults becoming more risk-averse is simply wrong,” Huettel said.

Getting to the heart — and brain — of the issue, PositScience blogger Ted Baxa says “this finding will come as no surprise to many.  Legendary investor Warren Buffett, 79, continues to outperform fund managers half his age.  The message to take from this article is that age by itself, as the saying goes, is just a number.”

When you finish with the checkbook, in other words, you might want to get busy on your brain exercises.

Cognitive Ability, Not Age, Predicts Risky Decisions – DukeHealth.org.

Alzheimer's: old music, new songs

Think nursery rhyme. Sing the words. How long is it since you learned that ditty?

Years ago a friend of mine named Alice suffered a stroke that left her with the ability to say only two words: “one, two.” Or she may have been saying “want to.” In the months ahead she developed a skill for packing more meaning into that phrase than most of us can manage in several paragraphs. “ONE two!,” she would fairly shout at her husband, expressing displeasure (something she did with regularity before the stroke.) “OnetwoONEtwo?” she would ask, in a “Do you really like it?” voice. Still, it was tough on friends and family, and had to have been more than frustrating for her.

Eventually Alice and her husband moved into an assisted living facility. Though she was a woman of limited education and resources, she was able to resume a minimal degree of activity within that community. I saw her about once a week there, for a period of months.

At Christmas time, a group of us went caroling in Alice’s building. Midway through one old, familiar song, as we stood facing an assembled group of residents, someone noticed that Alice was singing merrily along, word for word. There was a lot of nudging and head-nodding, and by the end of the last verse not a dry eye. As we left, Alice smiled and said, “One two, one two.”

Now comes another interesting word about music and the mind, from a Science Daily article posted on the PositScience blog. It cites results from research by the Boston University School of Medicine showing that people with Alzheimer’s retain verbal information better when it comes within the context of music. The findings appear online in Neuropsychologia, an international journal to which I admittedly do not subscribe.

To determine whether music can enhance new learning of information, AD (Alzheimer’s Disease) patients and healthy controls were presented with either the words spoken, or the lyrics sung with full musical accompaniment along with the printed lyrics on a computer screen. The participants were presented visually with the lyrics to 40 songs. Twenty of the song lyrics were accompanied by their corresponding sung recording and 20 were accompanied by their spoken recording.

After each presentation, participants were asked to indicate whether or not they were previously familiar with the song they had just heard. The BUSM researchers found accuracy was greater in the sung condition than in the spoken condition for AD patients but not for healthy older controls.

The blog elicited responses ranging roughly from “that’s very interesting” to “so what else is new?” I come down on the “that’s very interesting” side of the issue, because it is.

And the more we know about connections of this sort, the more we begin to understand about the workings of the mind and the broader the possibilities of unlocking its secrets. Those pesky memorizations of yore, set to music, still manage to survive all manner of afflictions.

I still can’t figure out where I put the keys… but I can sing you every line of “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

Can geezer drivers become better drivers?

This is the initial report from the field re geezer drivers and brain exercise. This space hereby goes on record as a believer. Just a minimal believer, but I — a certified geezer driver — actually think aging brains can become better-driving brains.

I recently downloaded, accessed, stored, signed in and completed whatever else one must do to begin the Posit Science DriveSharp program, an initial exercise in brain sharpening for computer Luddites. There are other programs out there to sharpen the skills of geezer drivers, and plenty of computer-game exercises aimed at the same goal. Posit Science (I am not on their payroll) offered me their program without charge, and little by little I plan to get all the way through.

For now, I have only done some initial roaming around and a few of the exercises. But an interesting thing has happened. Much of this is about how, as one ages, one’s “useful field of view” diminshes. So one might see the stop sign but miss the car speeding around the corner to the left. (If that’s a texting driver, you’re toast.)

I don’t think I’ve improved my useful field of view. But on an extended driving trip with my husband and a friend — in his wife’s fancy Lexus — this past weekend, I was actually complimented on my skills (ever try the two-lane, pothole-filled miles over the mountains from Hwy 101 to California’s Lost Coast?) by the car’s owner who had retired to the back seat. I think just the awareness of what “useful field of view” means makes a difference. Plus, I think brain exercises, even if they’re just teasers (Teasers for Geezers, this could be a new hit) build awareness of the complex issues drivers can face.

Try thinking about that “useful field of view” business, taking a test or doing a few brain exercises before your next drive, and see if you notice any difference. If I can ever find some actual time to do so I will undertake a few hours of actual DriveSharp program and report back.

Meanwhile, hang up the phone, please, and watch out for texters and geezers behind the wheel.

Can geezer drivers get safer? How about texters & cellphoners?

Just how risky are distracted drivers? Texters, geezers, cellphone users? Recently, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has cranked up the heat on a major campaign to end distracted driving. Well, more power to him… except LaHood’s dsitracted campaign seems to equate driving while talking on a cell phone with driving while tripping on LSD. LaHood’s overkill has raised the ire of The Weekly Standard’s senior editor Andrew Ferguson, who rather eloquently protests what Ferguson (and a lot of others) see as one more good example of government’s overreaching foolishness.

Over the last several months LaHood has mobilized his vast and lavishly funded ($70 billion) department behind a high-minded goal: “to put an end to distracted driving.” Those are his words—not curtail, not discourage, not even reduce by 50 percent. No: Put an end to. In its ambition and method, LaHood’s initiative is a kind of textbook example of how government guys create work for themselves, manage to keep themselves busy, and put the rest of us on our guard.

Meanwhile, with LaHood overreaching and manufacturers of front-seat computer equipment over-promoting we will all have to remain on guard. Against cell phone talking drivers, texting drivers, Big Mac eating drivers and…. geezer drivers.

I, a certified geezer driver, am at risk for a crash. This is a daunting discovery when one is the only driver in a household that occasionally needs to be driven somewhere. My preference — being a resident of the beautiful, walkable city of San Francisco — is always either to walk or take the Muni, but let’s face it, there are times I need to be behind the wheel. And I hate to put you at risk. Or myself, or my passenger either, for that matter.

So you and I are about to get safer. With no help from Ray LaHood.

This all started with a recent post about geezer drivers, texting drivers and other hazards. Steven Aldrich, CEO of PositScience, commented on that post. PositScience makes brain-training software and I am not on their payroll. But I did take the “What’s my crash risk” test which you are also hereby invited to take. I whizzed through the tutorial with a whole bunch of “That’s right!” responses, then set about taking the Evaluation and promptly flunked. After a phone conversation with Aldrich and one of his software experts I am conceding that the problem is not with their software but with my geezer brain. (Try it yourself. Let me know if you fail, please, I would appreciate some company.) Here’s the deal with the test:

The Crash Risk Evaluation measures your “useful field of view”—how much your brain notices in your peripheral vision in a brief glance. Studies show that the size of a person’s useful field of view is closely correlated with car crash risk.

Useful field of view tends to shrink with age because the brain takes longer to process what it sees. As a result, in a single glance it only has time to take in what’s in the middle of a scene—not what’s in the periphery. A smaller useful field of view makes it less likely that you’ll notice potential dangers—like a car swerving into your lane or a dog running into the street—in time to avoid them.

Having had my performance on the Crash Risk Evaluation indicate that my useful field of view is smaller than average, I am deemed risky. I reserve the right to at least some suspicion about tricky tests — there is a product for sale here and clearly it wouldn’t sell if everyone passed with flying colors — but I do have a geezer brain.

Therefore, thanks to the generosity of PositScience, I am now in possession of the DriveSharp program which I’m starting tomorrow. It’s 10 hours, for heaven’s sake, so don’t look for safer roads in San Francisco this week.

This space will report on your improved road safety as my DriveSharpness progresses. Got any ideas about texting drivers?