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Once again we find that exercise preserves functionality

Once again it seems that exercise works. Please read this article in the Science and Well section of the New York Times. In it, scientists discuss the results of a vision study involving the elderly. They found that older adults tend to fall down stairwells because they cannot distinguish edges, especially in the dark. This, by extension, led to a better understanding of car accidents involving elderly drivers at night—they have difficulty discerning the road markers.

Could an exercise designed to deal specifically with this problem help? The scientists gave a group of elderly people visual-contrast training, a brain exercise. During the sessions, the subjects saw some 750 rapid-fire images, which were in fairly low resolution to teach the brain to better distinguish them under adverse conditions. The result? After just a week of training, the subjects were much better able to distinguish letters and shapes, and they retained that ability for several months.

Here are the two takeaways. First, as Allison B. Sekuler, a scientist who was not involved in the new study, put it: “There’s an idea out there that everything falls apart as we get older, but even older brains are growing new cells.” She added: “You can teach an older brain new tricks.” Second, as Dr. G. John Anderson, the project’s senior adviser and a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, noted: “We think that a behavioral intervention where learning is going on changes brain structure in older adults.”

What does all this have to do with hearing? A lot. Scientists now doing similar cognitive research on hearing aids and the brain will probably find the same plasticity at work in the hearing system. No, hearing will not be restored, much as these eye exercises did not restore the subjects’ vision. Rather, exercise awakens functionality that elderly brains can regenerate, operate, and act upon. It’s a bit like returning to the pool after a long period of inactivity. At first, you can barely manage one lap. But swimming regularly will in time make it possible for you to manage longer distances without difficulty. The moral of the story is that as we get older, we need to ratchet up our exercise level—with all manner of exercises, including and especially those for the brain.