Declining cognitive function

There are two things most people do with their television sets: use them for viewing programs or use them for playing games. Your choice between the two just might make the difference between cognitive health and cognitive decline .

TV guide

I’ve never bought the concept of the television as an idiot box. It all depends on your choices. Watch a half hour of Animal Planet and you’ll probably learn something interesting. Put on a program where people confess tawdry secrets while a studio audience eggs them on to throw chairs at one another then, yeah, a TV becomes an idiot box.

Of course, there’s a full spectrum of value between Animal Planet and Jerry Springer. And the choices we make from that spectrum may impact cognitive health, according to a study from the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Researchers used data gathered from a study that recorded the television watching habits of women over the age of 70.

When the Brooklyn College team matched television program choices against tests that measured the subjects’ cognitive health, results showed that women who mostly watched talk shows were more than seven times more likely to have long-term memory problems. But soap opera watchers fared even worse. Those who mostly watched soaps were 13 times more likely to have attention problems.

Based on this one study we can’t jump to the conclusion that talk shows and soaps damage cognitive health. For instance, it’s possible that people with declining cognitive function find these types of shows appealing for some reason.

But study leader Joshua Fogel believes that the demonstrated link between TV program choices and cognitive function provides a useful tool. Fogel told HealthDay News that doctors could take TV viewing habits into account when evaluating whether or not older patients might require special screening for cognitive decline.

Brains at play

The HealthDay article about the Brooklyn College research also quoted Frederick Zimmerman, another researcher who has studied the effects of TV watching. Zimmerman believes that television programs that reduce active mental engagement may play a role in poorer cognitive outcomes in older people.

“Active mental engagement” is exactly what the game developers for the gaming giant Nintendo had in mind when they designed a new series of games called “Brain Training.”

As I’ve noted in other e-Alerts, some studies suggest that keeping the brain active will help prevent cognitive decline. Based on that theory, Nintendo game designers believe that newly developed games such as “Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day” can help keep brains young when timed mental challenges are performed repeatedly. According to the Washington Post, “Brain Age” tasks include memorizing words, solving math problems and counting the number of syllables in phrases.

With all due respect to Nintendo execs (after all, they’re the billionaires, not me), counting syllables and memorizing words sounds like a dreary homework assignment. I haven’t seen “Brain Age” in action, but the description has all the appeal of a prison sentence. Frankly, I’d rather watch Jerry Springer.

Young and old alike

I think Nintendo can do better than “Brain Age.” In fact, I know they can.

I have some friends who have a 10-year-old son, Josh. When I paid a recent visit to their home I watched Josh play a Nintendo game called “Chi Bi-Ro Bo!” It’s a role-playing game in which the player takes the part of Chi, a four-inch robot on a mission: He has to clean up spills, paw-prints and trash as he dashes throughout several complex levels of a house and its back yard.

But life isn’t all fun and cleaning for Chi. For one thing; he has to frequently find an electrical outlet so he can refresh his power. And he has to cope with dangerous spiders and a platoon of menacing eggs. (Why eggs? I have no idea. Neither did Josh.) I was most impressed with the fact that when it came to figuring out key tasks, Josh was pretty much on his own. Situations that at first seemed like dead ends or red herrings turned out to be important. In other words, he had to recall details, make connections and plan a strategy, all while managing his power level.

So if Nintendo can make an engaging and visually exciting game like this for kids, then why not the same for adults? Given the choice between playing the adult “Brain Age” or “ChiBi-Ro Bo” there’s no contest. I’ll take the mini robot challenge, and quite possibly improve my chances at keeping my brain healthy as it ages.

“Soaps, Talk Shows May Dull Aging Brains” Randy Dotinga, HealthDay News, 3/20/06,
“You May Unrot Your Mind” Aalok Mehta, The Washington Post, 3/28/06,