Think fast

Can your brain turn on a dime?

My step-grandmother is Swedish and lives in Sweden. She is (I think) 85 years old. When she was 50, she moved to the United States and learned to speak English for the first time. She accomplished this by conversing with people and also by holding a Swedish Bible in one hand and an English Bible in the other and comparing the words from the same verses. No Berlitz language tapes apparently needed. About 10 years ago, when she was about 75, she moved back to Sweden, to a small town where not much English is spoken.

Earlier in the year I posted an entry that my oldest son was spending second semester studying in Europe. One of his goals while there was to visit his great-grandmother and so he did. He spent a weekend with her in which he feasted on her exemplary Scandinavian cooking and toured the scenic countryside near her town with her and a couple other relatives.

I recently called her (US to Sweden) to thank her for her hospitality to my son. My call to her was out of the blue. She certainly did not pick up the phone expecting to have an English-speaking caller on the other end. As I said, there is little English spoken in her community. She answered the phone in Swedish yet the minute she heard my voice she transitioned to near-perfect English.

To say that I find this mental agility--at her age or any age--enviable is an understatement. I sometimes have trouble transitioning from the language of my day's work to the language of my dinner table, and both are in English.

A psychologist friend of mine told me about a conference she went to given by David Perlmutter, MD, author of The Better Brain Book. Up front I offer the disclaimer that I haven’t read this book but from what she told me, it is one that I plan to read. Mental speed and agility should be a goal for all of us according to Perlmutter and in his book he offers strategies to help us develop that, no matter our age. He suggests fun quick things like card games and matching games, not necessarily hours of laborious brain building reading or study.

Other interesting reading about the brain and keeping it sharp has come out of the Nun study, which is a long-term study on aging and cognitive function. Among the many key findings is that mental work done long ago continues to benefit a person as he/she ages. Dr. David Snowdon, an epidemiologist trained at University of Minnesota but now from University of Kentucky, is the principal investigator. Over a period of more than 15 years, Dr. Snowdon and his team studied 678 nuns from 7 convents in 6 states (all from the School Sisters of Notre Dame). These nuns were great study subjects because of the archival records available that tracked their environment, activities, and health for many years. In addition, the participating nuns agreed to donate their brains for analysis upon their death. The study group has a website on which you can find much information, including abstracts from all their published papers: Dr. Snowdon has also written a book about the study called Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives.

I don’t think, however, that my step-grandmother has read any books specifically on maintaining a sharp brain while aging or on increasing mental agility through the use of card games. Perhaps she just has good genes. Perhaps she has simply kept her brain excercised without a book telling her to do it. Perhaps it is the long-lasting effect of bi-lingual brain development from years ago. Perhaps it is keeping the Bible in at least one hand. Perhaps it is the clean air and preserving cold temperatures of Northern Sweden. I, on the other hand, may need some help. A deck of cards? A Berlitz language tape or two? More frequent International calls?