Training My Aging Brain

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On my first try, I wanted to throw my laptop. By my fifth session two weeks later, I reached an average n-back level of 2.55, meaning I had pretty well mastered 2-back and was halfway toward reaching 3-back. By my 10th session, my average was 2.80. My best performance came after three months, on my 37th session, when I averaged 3.70, and even reached 5-back twice.

During that same period, I also practiced Lumosity’s games. After my first 20-minute session, my performance put me just over the 50th percentile among the site’s millions of users, with a “Lumosity performance index,” as they call it, of 274. Four months later, my score was 1,135 – more than four times higher. Did this mean I was four times smarter? Ha. But for what it’s worth, my score was now in the 93rd percentile.

Beyond Brain Games

Dozens of studies have found that cardiovascular exercise is one of the best ways for older people to improve cognitive abilities. And resistance training, building muscle strength using external resistance, has been shown to not only improve memory and executive function in older adults, but to also maintain connective brain tissue. Knowing that, I laced up and joined a boot-camp exercise class that combined cardio and strength training.

During my introductory session, my trainer made me do a light jog around the quarter-mile track in town. It was supposed to be an easy warm-up, including lunges, jumping jacks and high-knee running in place. But I was sweaty and panting – and that was just the pre-workout. She led me to the old cement stadium steps overlooking the track.

“Usually we begin with a couple of easy runs up and down the steps,” she told me, “then three runs up and down as fast as you can go. Then we do side shuffles, then fast-feet: up two steps, down one step, up two steps, down one, until you reach the top. You want to give it a try?” “Not really,” I said, “but I’ll do it anyway.”

A single run up and down the stairs left me wheezing, but I continued with the side-shuffle and the fast-feet.

“You’re doing great,” she said.

“I am not.”

So it went for four agonizing months, during which I lost 10 pounds, improved my speeds and never stopped hurting.

But I didn’t quit there. On top of computer games and physical exercise, I tried three other methods supported by peer-reviewed studies:
* Fascinated by studies showing musical training enhances IQ in children, I decided to pursue a lifelong dream – learning to play the Renaissance-style lute. After months of practice, I got good enough to amaze myself and annoy friends and family.
* I underwent four sessions of transcranial direct-current stimulation at a Harvard laboratory. Hundreds of studies suggest the non-invasive treatment can improve memory, increase attention and creativity, relieve depression and more. I could barely feel the low-dose electricity applied to my forehead. Yet my peak n-back score occurred right after a treatment session.
* My one failure was prompted by studies suggesting mindfulness meditation, simply observing thoughts and sensations instead of judging and suppressing them, might improve attention and working memory. I tried – I really tried. But I gave up on finding my inner bliss after a few sessions, thanks to many interruptions from my barking bichon frise and two noisy daughters.

The Results Are In

Although one person trying multiple methods simultaneously means nothing scientifically, I did have my IQ tested before and after. The results? A gain of just one point. But I also had psychologists take before-and-after measurements of my fluid intelligence, the ability to solve novel problems and see hidden patterns. The gold-standard test is the Raven’s progressive matrices, in which you have to find a pattern in a sequence of eight symbols to correctly pick the ninth. My score climbed by 16.4 percent – on par with the gain seen in many studies. Not bad. But not huge, either.

In one last-ditch effort, I trained for a month on games available at www.brainhq.com, one of the best-researched training methods, with more than 100 peer-reviewed studies supporting its effectiveness. I improved, but after 12 sessions my ranking among other people my age was barely higher than when I started, stuck around the 86th percentile.

Whatever the test scores, I’ve noticed real-life effects. I work faster, am more efficient and – perhaps the greatest single test of cognitive capacity – I forget where I left my keys less often. My journalism career, at a time when some of my contemporaries have already retired, is still growing. And my emotional self-control has improved, even when the bichon and the girls are going at it.

All in all, my anecdotal results are in line with the findings of most published, peer-reviewed, randomized clinical trials: modest but significant gains. Enough to persuade you to give brain training a shot? Perhaps. If, that is, you’re “aging.” Which I definitely am not.