Episode 12 Transcript
(Robert Lipsyte)Coming up on "Life (Part 2)," do those computer memory workouts really buff the brain? Will anything help us remember where we put the keys? And later, one of the most important athletes of our time, tennis legend Billie Jean King on staying young and living for the future. Plus, best-selling author Nelson DeMille on what's great about turning 65. All coming up on "Life (Part 2)."
(woman) Major funding for "Life (Part 2)" was provided by The Atlantic Philanthropies-engaging many to improve the lives of and achieve health and economic security for older adults. And by MetLife Foundation-- celebrating the wisdom, talent, and experience of older adults. MetLife Foundation proudly supports "Life (Part 2)."
[bass, & plucked strings play in playful rhythm; bright in tone]
(Robert Lipsyte) Welcome to "Life (Part 2)," I'm Robert Lipsyte. It's commonly agreed that once you reach 50, most names are deleted from the hard drive of your brain. Why does this happen? Is it a serious problem? Can it be fixed? As more and more Baby Boomers forget more and more, they're taking a very Boomer- like approach to the problem. They're going for a workout-- for their brains! Sometimes it involves so-called brain gyms, but mostly it means sitting in front of a computer and playing some fairly challenging games, which I recently did to find out what kind of shape my brain is in. To make it interesting for you, I competed against a middle-aged producer and a young whippersnapper of a production assistant. The competition took place at a very funny location, the Friars Club in New York City, which is where all the comics hang out.
[player piano plays Ragtime]
(Robert Lipsyte) Well, I must say I'm feeling a little intimidated today, my brain on television, but I've got my brain game face on, and my brain handler is Kate Stasio of Positive Science. Thanks so much for joining "Life (Part 2)." Would you sit down and tell us what it is we're going to do today. Is it a day at the gym? Is it a fitness regime?
(Kate Stasio) Well, these programs are fun to use, but they are clearly not meant to be entertainment. They are really meant to try to drive changes in the brain both structurally, functionally, and chemically. So what we're trying to do is we're trying to change the way your brain works, which is kind of the same thing that you do, to your point, for physical fitness.
(Robert Lipsyte) Kate, for these Olympics of the mind, we are going to be joined by Rich Collier who is 45 and J.B. Roté who is 26. Is competition a good thing in this process?
(Kate Stasio) I can say that a lot of people who use our programs in communities, they do get a bit competitive, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that.
(Robert Lipsyte) Well in that case, let the games begin.
(J.B. Roté) Let's go!
(Kate Stasio) Click on the area where you saw the bird. [beep tones from the computers] You're going to see a series of distracter birds. We want to really hone in on the speed of processing skills.
(Rich Collier) I'm done!
(Robert Lipsyte) Why is he done?
(Kate Stasio) You're going to click on the out or in button in the order in which you saw those lines move. Does that make sense to everyone?
(Robert Lipsyte) Not yet!
(Kate Stasio) It's helping the brain release chemicals called neurotransmitters, and they help you actually focus and concentrate more on the exercises at hand. Of course, I'm rooting for Robert.
(Rich Collier) You're the teacher's pet!
(Robert Lipsyte) It seems tedious.
(J.B. Roté) I am crushing you guys.
(Rich Collier) Our score combined isn't as high as her score.
(Kate Stasio) You're going to be shown several jewels. You need to follow the 2 fish that are hiding your jewels. They are bubbles to begin with. This exercise is really about divided attention. [rapid computer tones and beeps]
(Robert Lipsyte) Oh yes!
(Rich Collier) If we were leg wrestling or doing some form of competitive eating, I would be winning.
(J.B. Roté) Is it the ability to multitask?
(Robert Lipsyte) Okay, I'm finished.
(Kate Stasio) And you?
(Rich Collier) I had 470.
(Robert Lipsyte) Why does it say 116?
(Kate Stasio) And you have 116.
(Robert Lipsyte) Rich, J.B., thank you so much for being such great sports and great competitive companions. Kate, thank you so much for pointing us in such interesting scientific directions.
(Kate Stasio) Yeah, it's been my pleasure. Thank you so much.
(J.B. Roté) Could I take this skill to Vegas?
(Robert Lipsyte) Okay, so I can concentrate. But I'm not much of a multitasker. Should I care? I just happen to be sitting with 3 brainiacs who have all the answers. Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy is the Chief of Biological Psychiatry and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Aging at Duke University Medical Center. He is the author, with Lisa Gwyther of "The Alzheimer's Action Plan, A Practical Guide to Early Detection and Living With the Disease." Dr. Denise Park holds the T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Chair in Clinical Brain Science at the University of Texas. Dr. Gary Small is a Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, where he directs the Memory & Aging Research Center, and he's the author of several books including "The Memory Bible." Welcome all of you to "Life (Part 2)." I have assembled you all here, of course, to discuss my brain. [laughter] Based on what you saw in that clip, does that stuff mean anything? Dr. Small?
(Dr. Gary Small) We know that we can train the brain. The brain is a remarkably sensitive organ, and there are now many types of cognitive techniques, training programs and we've shown that we can improve our function as a result of these programs. They're spilling over into the computer world, and we're seeing programs like the one you played with.
(Robert Lipsyte) If I did that every day for half an hour before I came to the studio, would my interviews be sharper?
(Dr. Denise Park) We don't know the answer to that. I would say maybe. And what's lacking right now in terms of our knowledge is what systematically improves cognitive function over the long term?
(Dr. Gary Small) Right now, the public is convinced that they can prevent Alzheimer's by doing Sudoku puzzles, and we don't have the evidence for that.
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) That's right, and you don't want someone to spend a lot of money, time, and effort...
(Robert Lipsyte) Is that why they're popular? I hate them!
(Dr. Small/Dr. Doraiswamy) For some people, they're fine.
(Dr. Denise Park) I think that novelty is really critical. For example, I would argue that crossword puzzles, this is probably controversial, I don't think crossword puzzles improve your cognitive function. Why? Because you're using existing neurostructures to activate the answer. What you want to do is build and engage in demanding processing.
(Dr. Gary Small) Okay, but crossword puzzles do make you better at doing crossword puzzles, so you improve that particular activity.
(Dr. Denise Park) True.
(Dr. Gary Small) But the other thing that you're doing, and your study is a big part of it is the social engagement.
(Dr. Denise Park) I think people really underestimate how much neural stimulation is involved in social situations. We've developed an environment, a clinical trial, in a sense, in Dallas, and I call this environment Synapse. And Synapse is based on a different premise from the brain training games. Synapse is based on the idea that you want to engage people in lots of novelty. So we bring people in. They learn a skill that they've never learned before such as quilting or digital photography. They have a professional instructor.
(Robert Lipsyte) And what happens?
(Dr. Denise Park) We just started the trial. We have some preliminary evidence that people's memory, reasoning, and speed of processing improves. But it really is one of the very first clinical trials, and it's in its early stages. I wouldn't at this point bet the family farm on it, but it's based on, I think sound science.
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) I think the science is very strong, as you pointed out. We have experiments from animal models that suggest very clearly that novel environments such as what you're talking about not only improve the actual function or abilities that they were trained on, but might also improve the number of connections between nerve cells that are formed.
(Robert Lipsyte) The equivalent is the cross-training in a gym.
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) That's right, absolutely.
(Robert Lipsyte) I would like to get back to my brain, if I may.
(Dr. Gary Small) It's always about your brain, Robert! [laughter]
(Robert Lipsyte) That's why I took this job. I won because I was very strong in concentration and very weak in multitasking. Are these different parts of the brain?
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) Absolutely.
(Robert Lipsyte) Can they be improved?
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) There are different things that happen as one gets older. There are some things that get weaker and some things that get stronger.
(Robert Lipsyte) As I age, what stays better?
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) The things that typically get worse with time are what we call some frontal lobe abilities. So, for example, working memory, that is sort of your short-term memory. Things that your frontal lobe is involved in such as executive function. That's decision-making ability for certain day-to-day things. Also speed of processing sometimes declines with aging. But the things that do get better are the result of experience. So you get better probably at making the more important decisions related to, for example, finances, related to family, social life. You're probably also having a better signal-to-noise in the brain. It's sort of more clarity of thinking, if you will.
(Robert Lipsyte) "Signal to noise," do you mean focusing on specific things?
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) Better focusing on the important issues and taking better decisions is what we call experience. Sometimes I like to think of a senior moment as a wisdom moment.
(Dr. Denise Park) There's lots of evidence that older workers are not poorer at their jobs. Even though their memory might not be quite as good or they might not be quite as fast, they have all this vast amount of experience.
(Dr. Gary Small) The biggest challenge for most of us as we age because there's so much going on. We're better able to see the big picture but we miss some of the detail, and we don't get that into our memory stores. But we can teach people these skills very easily.
(Robert Lipsyte) Getting you back into context, is that a memory trick, or is this something that really...
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) Memory hygiene. Better memory hygiene.
(Robert Lipsyte) What do you mean by "hygiene?"
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) Well, there are many, many things in our daily life that can affect the strength of our memories. Better memory hygiene is don't multitask as much.
Reduce the stress level, reduce depression, get a good night's rest, and make sure that you're focusing and putting a lot of attention into whatever it is that you want to memorize.
(Dr. Denise Park) And the people with the worst memories in our studies were the middle-aged because they're the busiest.
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) And the ones who are the most anxious usually.
(Dr. Denise Park) Yeah. Yeah.
(Robert Lipsyte) All right, how important is stress in all of this?
(Dr. Gary Small) Stress is huge, and we can't eliminate stress, but we can respond to it differently.We know from animal studies that stressed-out animals literally have smaller memory centers in the brain. We know from human studies if you inject a human volunteer with the stress hormone cortisol, it temporarily impairs their learning and their recall. Now fortunately, it's temporary. So we can take away these sources of stress or help people react to it better, and it can clearly improve their memory.
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) Most of the decline in memory, I think comes from other factors in the brain, for example, a reduction in blood supply due to clots building up and blockages in the small blood vessels of the brain. So if you can be heart healthy, then you can be brain healthy.
(Robert Lipsyte) Which leads me to ask you if a good walk might be as good for your brain as sitting with those machines.
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) Absolutely.
(Dr. Gary Small) There have been studies showing that just walking say 10, 15 minutes a day can lower your risk for Alzheimer's disease. So that's critically important.
(Robert Lipsyte) Stop me if I'm wrong, but there just seems something a little hucksterish, opportunistic, snake oil about the brain gyms.
(Dr. Gary Small) It seems snake oil-ish because some of the marketing tends to suggest that it's going to do more than it really can, and there's lots of companies trying to capitalize on this, and a lot of these devices are merely toys. But then you have another group that are really trying to test out these devices in clinical trials to see if they're any better than a control group, and I think when we see that kind of evidence, the kind of studies that Dr. Park is doing and our group is doing at UCLA, I think when you see the kind of scientific evidence, it is convincing that it can help you.
(Robert Lipsyte) Well, I was thinking about the storefront program that you have with quilting and photography, which probably is most powerful for the people who have not taken pictures or quilted before.
(Dr. Denise Park) We actually require that they not have taken pictures or quilted before because we don't think it will help people.
(Robert Lipsyte) So they make a real effort with these disciplines, plus the fact that they're interacting.
(Dr. Denise Park) Yes, that's critical.
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) If you've never learned ballroom dancing, or learning a new musical instrument, or just doing simple things like taking a different route to go to work, it engages different parts of the brain that are involved in GPS and navigation.
(Robert Lipsyte) Actually, I did take up ballroom dancing, although not for aerobics, but to dance, and I found that the incredible intensity of it, the absorption of it-- also driving a NASCAR car did the same thing.
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) Of course.
(Robert Lipsyte) That kind of something new, something exciting, and also to do something in which you never have a stray thought.
(Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy) And I want to point out it's important to have a multisensory experience. Your brain just loves it when all your senses are involved. Smell, hearing, eyesight. We rarely use our smell. So it's very important. Maybe burn candles at home while you're taking a shower. Or listen to music when your eyes are closed. Things like that, I think wake up the brain.
(Robert Lipsyte) Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, you have put my brain on fire. Thank you all so very much for joining us on "Life (Part 2)."
(Robert Lipsyte) I've written about sports for the New York Times off and on for half a century, so I'm sometimes asked who is the most influential sports figure of my time. People expect me to say Muhammad Ali, even Michael Jordan, but my pick is Billie Jean King. She helped professionalize sports, and more importantly, she helped change the way we think about gender. I've always admired the courage and character she showed throughout her career as a tennis player, a broadcaster, and a businesswoman. She discusses this in her book "Pressure is a Privilege." I found out more when I sat down with my old friend Billie Jean.
(Robert Lipsyte) Billie Jean King, welcome to "Life (Part 2)." As you know, you've been my "shero"...
(Billie Jean King) Thank you.
(Robert Lipsyte) ...for more than 40 years, and I thought I knew everything about you, but one thing that surprised me in "Pressure is a Privilege," your new book, was that one of your role modelsi n the art of aging was Bobby Riggs.
(Billie Jean King) Yes!
(Robert Lipsyte) Yeah, this kind of 55-year-old hustler whom you beat at 30 in the so-called "Battle of the Sexes," but he goes on and on for the next 20-odd years.
(Billie Jean King) Well first of all, just by playing me at his age, at 55, was part of the art of aging. Here's a man who I totally respected, because I kept in touch with him until the very last day of his life. So, I adored him. He never stopped, he just had fun. He always played tennis, played golf. He kept moving, and that's really important as we get older.
(Robert Lipsyte) Is that what you've been doing?
(Billie Jean King) Oh, I still work. I still work 7 days a week or whenever I have to work.
(Robert Lipsyte) One of the things, I've always thought that athletes really age twice, and somebody's who's had, you've had real trouble with your knees and all, maybe 3 or 4 times during periods of disability. What's harder? Retiring from sports at 40 or finding other things starting to go when you're 50 and 60?
(Billie Jean King) As far as my body?
(Robert Lipsyte) Yeah, your body and your mind.
Emotionally, I'm in the best place I've ever been. So I think I gained, every year, emotionally. But I went to therapy. I really worked on a lot of different areas of my life, which when you're playing, you can put off forever. One thing about being a professional athlete is that you can escape every single day from, I think, other things that are maybe on your mind or inside you, you don't want to accept or get to and really face my fears, for instance. And it's a great way to stay focused and not deal, because you have a match every day or a practice or-- it's amazing how it fills your day.
(Robert Lipsyte) But then bang! I mean, that must've been hard not playing now, and you kind of sinked into this...
(Billie Jean King) No, it wasn't hard not playing, what was hard is my sexuality. I had not come to terms with it, now, I had time! Okay? I didn't have that match, that escapism every day. And also something that was very pressing on me was I wanted to be at peace with my parents before any... my parents or my brother or I died. And I worked through it with my parents that I'm a lesbian now, and I have had this long relationship with Ilana Kloss. And we got there.
(Robert Lipsyte) In the book you have these rules, Billie Jean's rules for life, and I was struck by how traditional they were.
(Billie Jean King) Very.
(Robert Lipsyte) "Be polite, show respect," listen to your elders, give to the less fortunate, and show gratitude."
(Billie Jean King) Yeah, that's just a few, I've got more.
(Robert Lipsyte) I always thought you were so cutting edge.
(Billie Jean King) No, I'm not cutting edge. You know what? Each generation stands on the shoulders of the past generation, and when you're there, you want them to stand on your shoulders too because you always want to help people get to the next level and do better.
(Robert Lipsyte) And yet that kind of mentoring, which is what you're talking about, the intergenerational reach back, you are kind of training your replacements who are going to replace you.
(Billie Jean King) Yes. That's exactly what you do.
(Robert Lipsyte) And that's what you want to do?
(Billie Jean King) Oh I loved doing it, I still enjoy it, because it's your time to let go. It's good to pass the baton. Now, I see older people who can't, and they're miserable! You gotta be happy for others. I enjoy it, I enjoy seeing young people do well. I enjoy seeing older people do great. I love listening to people even older than I am. They're still going strong. I mean, my mother's in her 80s, 86, she's going to be 87 soon. It's like she's just dancing, working out, seeing friends. And she would like to find a companion that likes to go dancing, and that's it! See ya!
(Robert Lipsyte) You seem to be living through your mother.
(Billie Jean King) Well, I am now, particularly because...
(Robert Lipsyte) She's in her 80s, she's dancing.
(Billie Jean King) Yeah I am, and I've gotten closer to my mother because of the honesty. And my mom's really good now, and I can be free and feel safe to tell her anything I want. I think getting old is, it's challenging. All I can tell you is getting old is not for sissies! Because the thing I don't like is the physical aspect breaking down, it's like ugh, another doctor's appointment, another dental appointment. Ai-yi-yi! It takes time, and I don't want to spend my time at a doctor's office, or getting blood work, or-- I don't want to do that, I want to keep going. And that's the part that gets irritating, I'm sure as I speak this, other people are saying, you're not kidding.
(Robert Lipsyte) I'm saying tell me about it, Billie Jean King.
(Billie Jean King) I know, and I don't know how people do it.
(Robert Lipsyte) Is that what you're most fearful of about aging, the physical disability?
(Billie Jean King) Well that and my dad had 5 years of dementia. I think if my brain isn't cooking pretty good, goin' on my quick twitch, you know that... I notice a difference already, I don't like that, I'm slower. But then I go, be patient, It's okay, I'm older, I should be, I want to go slower. I don't want to rush. Another thing my mother and I've talked about is that, you know, she has friends. I guess the magic number of friends if you lose your spouse is to have at least 4, and I guess that's why women do better than men. They've found that women usually have more friends than the men do, and why they survive better. So all the men out there listening, get your friends because you're all going to be helping each other when you lose your dear ones, and I think that's important.
(Robert Lipsyte) Billie Jean King, thank you so much for joining "Life (Part 2)."
(Billie Jean King) Thank you. It's great to see you.
(Robert Lipsyte) People gobble up Nelson DeMille's smart and tricky thrillers for pure pleasure, and a little brain workout too. Each of his 15 novels has made the bestseller list including his latest, "The Gate House." My own favorite is "The Gold Coast." Nelson DeMille is a Vietnam veteran, who earned the Bronze Star. He's a member of MENSA, and he survived a few marriages. So when he ruminates on turning 65, he does it from the perspective of a successful career, a fully lived life, and a hard-earned sense of humor.
(Nelson DeMille) I've just celebrated my 65th birthday, so there's no getting around the designation senior citizen. I called Social Security and let them know, and I stopped throwing away offers from AARP. To be old is to be free, free from a lot of the conventions, inhibitions, and restrictions that determine our whole lives up to a certain point. Aside from a government check and discounted movie tickets, there are a few other advantages to being a certain age. The biggest one is that you can get out of things you don't want to do by feigning illness, mental confusion, or even death. Also this is a good time in your life to tell people what you really think of them, like you're an idiot, and you are so not invited to my 65th birthday party. Another neat thing is that you can make up a lot of stuff about the past, like when I was a kid, we walked to school barefoot in 10 feet of snow and hunted rats for lunch, which somehow brings me to the subject of sex.
There's not much time left for that, so you should get as much as possible while you can. Viagra is good, but as an Italian American, I find that parmesan cheese works just as well. Two years ago, I married a woman 20 years younger than me, and we have a beautiful baby boy. I just realized that by the time he's out of diapers, I'll be in diapers, but in the meantime, he's keeping me young, and life is good. Looking back, my only real regret is if I'd known I was going to live so long, I would've taken better care of myself. Bottom line though, I did it my way, and if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't change much, except maybe less work and more cocktails. And I leave you with this thought. It's better to be over the hill than under it. Hmm, parmesan cheese... it's amazing what you can learn when you watch PBS!
(Robert Lispyte) For now, that's it for "Life (Part 2)." I'm Robert Lipsyte. Thanks for watching. See you next time, older and better.
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(woman) Major funding for "Life (Part 2)" was provided by The Atlantic Philanthropies--engaging many to improve the lives of and achieve health and economic security for older adults. And by MetLife Foundation-- celebrating the wisdom, talent, and experience of older adults. MetLife Foundation proudly supports "Life (Part 2)."
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