The city of San Marino, Calif., where I run the library, is not like other towns. Although it is embedded in the larger Los Angeles metropolitan area, it holds itself apart, an affluent and insular island. Here, there is no call for our library to offer literacy or immigration classes. Still, the citizens of the city have a profound, unmet information need that its library can help to fill.
According to the U.S. Census, a full 17.6% of San Marino citizens are age 65 or older (compared to 11.4% of the California population). And they are smart: 73.8% of adults in town have a college degree, compared to 30.5% of Californians overall.
Our oldest patron, who is 101, walks up the street to us every week to pick out her books. She regaled me recently of the time she wrote articles for a local newspaper … in the 1930s! So you can see that, in San Marino, where everyone can afford the best healthcare, effectively, nobody dies. Death, in this city, seems in poor taste, inconsiderate, almost vulgar.
All that longevity creates a concern: If, after you retire, you have 40 years stretching before you, how will you fill the time and keep your wits about you? Here is where the library can help: by offering resources that promote brain fitness.
In his 2004 TED Talk, neuroscientist Michael M. Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California–San Francisco, described the brain as a “learning machine.” As the brain learns, it forms new physical structures specifically designed to manage new information or motor skills (“Growing Evidence of Brain Plasticity,” Feb. 2004; ted.com/talks/michael_merzenich_on_the_elastic_brain). In children, the learning process physically changes and organizes the brain, bringing it out of noisy chaos so that we can understand language, for example. In aging brains, the process reverses. “Just as the brain came out of chaos at the beginning,” Merzenich says, “it’s going back into chaos in the end. This results in declines in memory and cognition, and in postural ability and agility.”
However, Merzenich’s research shows that cognitive speed and processing can be improved in the normally aging brain with the help of computer-based training programs. “It turns out you can train the brain of such an individual … for about 30 hours.” (Merzenich points out that the trainees in his study were in their 80s and 90s.) “What you see are substantial improvements of their immediate memory, of their ability to remember things after a delay, of their ability to control their attention, their language abilities and visual-spatial abilities.”
Adam Gazzaley, associate professor at the University of California–San Francisco, agrees, noting that the brain is “plastic,” that is, it has the ability to modify itself, its structure, its function, its chemistry, all in response to new experiences. This ability of the brain to change and grow continues throughout life (“Video Games and the Future of Cognitive Enhancement,” GPU Technology Conference, March 27, 2014; ustream.tv/recorded/45429171). According to Gazzaley, interactive computer programs and video games can be designed to encourage brain plasticity, and thus, improve the quality of life.