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Friday, September 28, 2007

Those vanishing brain cells

By Dick Hirsch
I was impressed to learn recently that a baby is born with 100 billion brain cells. Yes billion, with a “b.” My first question, as you might expect, is: How many cells are still in place and functioning among individuals who are cruising through middle age and beyond?
Everybody I know would like to have the answer to that question, but it’s a very elusive number. We all know we are shedding cells like a guy with a chronic case of dandruff, but we want to know how many remain and whether they are operational.
We need those cells badly, very badly, much more than our parents did because life today is more complicated. There are so many more things to remember. Early generations were busy struggling to build a shelter and make a living, to shoot a wild turkey or catch a fish for dinner or grow parsnips or squash for winter storage. Those were challenging tasks, of course, but they were relatively simple. You got some seed and planted. If you saw a turkey or a moose, you shot it.
It didn’t require remembering a password, for example. We all have passwords and security codes. Sometimes it is a strain to remember them. That is just one of the obvious examples of the daily brain struggle that dominates many lives. Babies have all those brain cells, but nothing much to remember. You’ve heard the old saying about youth being wasted on the young; this is the logical extension of that, with brain cells being wasted on the newborn.
Remembering random facts is not just a problem of the aged. What is aged, anyway? Those definitions all changed when people realized they were living longer. Some in their 80s are still successfully managing businesses, running for public office, writing books, composing music or in other ways demonstrating their continued vitality. Yes, they have occasional trouble remembering, but so do people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. The problem is there is just so much, maybe too much, to remember. It could be that not all of it is worth remembering, but that is another story.
In a conversation just the other day a good friend, an attorney, was grimacing as he tried to recall some benign fact. It was a non-essential fact, unrelated to his work, about which he is able to cite certain obscure rulings without much effort. But ask the name of a pizza parlor where he ate last week and he suddenly can’t remember, although he can tell the location, give the nearest cross street and describe the antipasto salad in the most comprehensive detail. Do you know him or anyone like him?
Despite the rising tide of things I am supposed to remember, my memory usually works fairly well. Perhaps I can attribute that, in part at least, to the fact that I wasn’t exposed to television as an infant. A study conducted by pediatricians at the University of Washington was released recently and it contained another grim warning about the potentially negative impact of TV. We have been reading about studies like that for at least 50 years, and as far as I can tell, no one has yet paid much attention. This study claims to be the first ever conducted on the viewing habits of children under the age of two.
It disclosed that about 40 percent of three-month old children are watching TV or videos for an average of 45 minutes every day. By the time they reach the age of two, the daily TV viewing time of 90 percent of those in the survey has doubled to 90 minutes. Since the children are clearly too young to fill out a questionnaire or deal with a phone call from a survey taker, it’s fair to conclude that the responses come from parents. Many parents apparently still consider TV to be an educational medium, so they plop the kids before the screen, believing it will enhance brain development. The researchers believe it produces just the opposite result.
“Such early exposure to screens can have a negative impact on an infant’s rapidly developing brain and put children at a higher risk for attention problems, diminished reading comprehension, and obesity,” the report said.
The announcement didn’t explain how obesity crept into the forecast, although perhaps early TV watching eventually does lead to the development of adult couch potatoes. The long-range prognosis is ominous: both diminished brain capacity and an increased waistline.


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