Don’t Go Quietly into the Night—Keep Your Brain Agile

Stay young by doing what you love

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

As we grow older, we often abandon the activities that bring us joy. According to Professor Vishton, keeping up with them will not only make us happier, but will also fight the effects of aging on the brain.

Man typing on typewriter
Typically, as we notice decline in cognitive functioning, we develop strategies to compensate for the slower speed of performing our usual activities. Photo By Vladeep / Shutterstock

Brain Agility and Familiar Activities

In addition to taking on new activities in order to keep your brain agile and young, Professor Vishton also recommends that you continue doing familiar activities that are important to you. 

For example, there’s a story about a 90-year-old man who could put his legs up, over, and behind his head. This is a challenging physical contortion task for anyone, even young men. 

People would often ask him, “What’s your secret?” The man’s reply was always the same: “When I was a young man, I stretched and practiced and figured out how to make my body do this. Then I just did it again, every day up until today.”

The story illustrates an important point that is central to fighting the effects of aging on the brain. As our basic cognitive faculties slowly decline, one of the ways we maintain our performance and keep our brain agile is by developing ways to compensate for those losses.

Typing and Brain Agility

University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy Salthouse and his colleagues conducted a study on how well people type as they age. The reason they studied typing is that typing can be carefully assessed in terms of both overall performance and in terms of basic level functions that contribute to it.

A group of expert typists were recruited for the study. They visited the Salthouse lab and completed several types of tests. 

The first was to type several passages as quickly and accurately as possible. The computer used for the task coded that speed and accuracy. The participants also completed a wide range of tests of basic cognitive, perceptual, and motor abilities that are related to typing.

For example, participants would tap a key as fast as possible to provide a measure of their raw finger speed. They would respond to a series of individual characters on the screen by pressing a key as fast as possible. 

In typing, that’s what you do—you see a letter, and then you press the key that corresponds to that letter. The presumption here is that this choice reaction time should be closely related to overall typing speed.

For novice typists, this was true. The faster you can recognize characters and press the right button, the faster you can type. 

If you compare a group of young adult novice typists to a group of older adult novice typists, you see the typical age effect. Older adults are slower at the choice reaction and button press tasks, and they are slower typists.

With experienced typists, however, the younger versus older comparison produces an interesting pattern of results. The maximum key press speed of older experienced typists is slower than for younger experienced typists. 

Also, the older experienced typists are slower in the single character choice reaction time task. There is a roughly linear function that relates both of these performance functions to age. 

Fighting Cognitive Decline

However, if you look at the actual typing speed of these experienced typists, there is almost no effect of age at all. A 70-year-old typist is slower in terms of all of the cognitive and motor assessments when compared with 20-year-old and 30-year-old experienced typists. 

However, when you present these typists with a passage of text and ask them to type it as quickly as possible, their speed is almost identical. How could this be?

Salthouse performed several clever experiments in which he restricted the number of characters ahead on the line of text that the typists were allowed to look at. If you are only looking 10 characters ahead on the line, then if someone blocks characters 15 and more ahead of where you are currently typing, it won’t affect you. 

If someone blocks all the characters beyond five ahead of where you are looking, however, then your performance will suffer. There is information you want to be using, but your access to it is restricted.

These experimenters found that older typists were maintaining their speed by looking farther ahead in the line of text than the younger typists. As their basic sensory and motor capacities declined, they discovered new strategies to overcome those limitations.

This process doesn’t just work with typing. We can develop strategies to compensate for loss of brain function in almost any activity and keep our brains agile.

If our brain doesn’t allocate attention as fast as it used to, we can just slow down a bit and give it the time that it needs. If our brain doesn’t automatically remember names as well as it used to, then we can focus on encoding the name a bit better when we meet people to compensate. The decline in brain function is typically small, so even simple strategic tweaks are all that will usually be needed to keep your brain agile.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.