Old Dog, New Tricks
FROM THE CHIEF MEDICAL EDITOR
Old Dog, New Tricks
Larry E. Patterson, MD
"Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80." — Henry Ford
Earlier this year, I turned 50. If you've been there already, you understand that it's quite a landmark birthday. If you're not there just yet, be prepared. It can hit pretty hard.
In growing awareness of my advancing age, about a year ago I paid a visit to one of those "age management" medical clinics, the ones that charge an arm and a leg to help you maximize your health. Surprisingly, it was a very positive experience. They extracted about a quart of blood to test for every conceivable abnormality. Beyond just a full physical, there were the strength and flexibility tests, exercise endurance and VO2 tests, and even bone densitometry measurements. I learned a lot about the pros and cons of my individual anatomy and physiology. But then came the memory/intelligence tests.
Now, I consider myself a fairly intelligent being. I did, after all, graduate at the very top… of the middle third… of my medical school class. But this cognitive testing indicated otherwise. My doctor reported that my ability to learn and remember was only so-so. He explained that as a young adult I was constantly learning new things. And while I still study a lot, it is mostly to learn how to be better at stuff I already know a lot about. He suggested I learn something completely new, something that would stretch my mind in ways it had not been exercised in years. Maybe learn a new language.
Some research suggests our brains are much like skeletal muscles: you have to exercise them to grow them. But if you continue to do the same exercises for an extended time period, your muscles reach a plateau and cease getting stronger. Apparently our minds are the same way, needing new challenges to stay happy and active. This may very well be a prime way of fending off such age-related degenerations as Alzheimer's disease. A lot of good it would do me to keep my body in great shape at 80 but then be unaware of what's going on around me.
So what did I do? I always wanted to fly, so I dove into flight training last fall. I knew nothing about engines, weather, navigation or any of a number of subjects whose knowledge is essential to become a safe pilot. It was hard, very much like going back to medical school, although the pace was on my own terms. This April I received my private pilot certificate, and last weekend I got my instrument rating. I absolutely love it, and fly all the time now.
Last month, I returned to the clinic for my yearly follow-up. I took the memory/intelligence test. The results? I skyrocketed to the top. All of my parameters were in the 95th percentile range.
There's more to learn out there than just ophthalmology. It wasn't too late for me. It's not too late for you! (But keep on reading this publication each month — it's vital to your mental and your financial health.)
I think I'll learn Russian next. Easy, right?
Ophthamology Management, Issue: December 2009