String around the finger’s no longer enough

November 15, 2010

Remember the SAT? {I know. A long time ago. But try.}

One of the quantitative sections showed a flattened box with dotted lines. The instructions were something like: If you folded on the dotted lines, what would the box look like? Then it showed four differently-shaped boxes to choose from. It did this several times.

If I remember correctly, this was a test of spatial recognition.Well, bless me Father, I had no earthly idea. None. Which is why, despite a high verbal SAT score, my quantitative score was extremely low. {Ok, one reason why. I wasn’t great at advanced algebra or geometry, either.}

Surely related to this is that I have never had any sense of direction. None. I can only get somewhere without crib sheets after lots of repetition, and I do mean “lots.” And even then, if I don’t go for a while I lose the pattern and can’t get there.

This has always been my plight. Since I got my driver’s license at age 16.I became an avid Mapquest user when it was available, even though its reliability was imperfect. And about a year ago, we got portable navigation systems. Mine seemed like a gift from God. {Although here in the Bay area it loses satellite reception frequently.}

Nav systems are a great security blanket and I daresay many of us now rely on GPS to get around, even if we think we might be able to get there without it.

Well, here’s some sobering news for navigation system users from an article by Joan Raymond on MSNBC.com:

Generally, to find our way, we rely on one of two strategies: The first is a so-called spatial navigation strategy, in which we build cognitive maps using things like landmarks as visual cues that not only help us determine where we are at a given point in space, but also help us plan where we need to go. Or, we navigate by using a stimulus-response strategy, a kind of auto-pilot mode in which we turn left and right because, after some repetition, that’s the most efficient way to get from A to B. If you have GPS, that uber-strategy of stimulus-response may seem quite familiar.

Those in (a MacDill University study) who navigated spatially (the non-GPS users) were shown on fMRI images to have increased activity in the hippocampus, an area of the brain believed to be involved in memory and navigation and play a role in finding shortcuts and new routes.

According to the McGill researchers, their findings suggest that the aging process involves a shift in navigational strategies. Healthy young adults tend to spontaneously use a spatial approach when navigating a virtual maze…researchers found in their studies. But most older adults used a response strategy.

That shift may lead to atrophy of the hippocampus, a risk factor for cognitive problems in normal aging and in Alzheimer’s disease, explains neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot, associate professor of psychiatry at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University. The hippocampus is one of the first brain areas to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease, causing problems with memory and spatial orientation.

But the researchers also found a greater volume of grey matter in the hippocampus of older adults who used spatial strategies. And these adults scored higher on a standardized cognition test used to help diagnose mild cognitive impairment, which is often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. These findings suggest that using spatial memory may increase the function of the hippocampus and increase our quality of life as we age, says Bohbot. More simply: it could be a case of use it or lose it.

I’m already paranoid about age-related memory issues that seem to be increasing as I approach the next big decade birthday. Now I’m wondering what this says about the state of my hippocampus. Was I born with an atrophied one? Can it get even smaller? Will I come down with the dreaded “A” disease, like my father? Do I need to tie the proverbial string around my finger, permanently?

Use it or lose it. That’s what they said about calculators and also programming telephone numbers. My husband doesn’t know my cellphone number. It’s programmed into his Blackberry. My only saving grace is that even after years of calculator use, I can still add, subtract, multiply and divide. {Usually….}

Today is National Memory Screening Day. To find a free screening site in your area today, go here: http://www.afascreenings.org/

{I’m a bit worried that some of the assisted living homes are doing this–surely they couldn’t be using this day to troll for future residents?}

Oh, and stay away from demon rum:

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