Olgas Among Us – Part 2

 

While working on the Olga book, framing up Olga as a model of someone living the Exemplary Life, I sometimes wondered: why am I privileging physical health over mental health? Don’t get me wrong: she was sharp and funny and wise, a puzzler and a careful reader. But she wasn’t an intellectual. Hers was a life of the body much more than it was a life of the mind.

Surely there are some old souls out there whose lifelong devotion to intellectual pursuits rival Olga’s to devotion to staying fit and in motion; people who remain, even as they approach 100 years old, Olympians of the neocortex?

Look no farther than Eric Koch.

A longtime producer and executive at the CBC (Canada’s national broadcaster), Eric also taught social science at York University in Toronto. I learned this from his blog, called “Sketches,” which he began five years ago, at the age of 90.

If you want to read Eric’s archive of posts, prepare to set aside a week. There are close to fifteen hundred of them. (Honestly, I lost count). A daily-newspaper columnist who managed that kind of output would be in a good position to ask for a pay raise. Together, Eric’s posts — or “feuilletons,” as he calls them — display the breadth of his interests, and the acuity of his mind. Some are links to provocative articles found elsewhere, and some are original musings. The canvas is wide: world affairs, history, economics, literature, Hitlerology, soccer, philosophy, politics, music, language, bees. He also has links to short videos he created and posted on YouTube, in which he sits musing in front of a webcam in his home – like John Green, but with less hair and more gravitas. If you read all of his entries and watched all of those films, you’d get a good picture of Eric, and fine snapshot of Canada, and a decent liberal-arts education. This is all the product of a ferocious curiosity indulged with the time and will to roam, for decade upon decade.

The legendary New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell, a fabulous prose stylist still at 93, told a reporter recently that he churns out personal blog entries partly to keep his mind sharp. There’s good evidence that a habit of writing — letters, blogs, diary entries, novels, whatever —is a bulwark against dementia. I’d assumed that writing was actually a better bulwark against dementia than even reading, because writing is for most people a more active process than reading. But there’s no good data to support that. Writing’s good, reading’s good, learning other languages is good, doing puzzles is good.

A new study out of the Mayo Clinic, however, seems to speak directly to the earned cognitive horsepower of people like Eric Koch. As Pacific Standard Magazine summarized the findings: “The best medicine, for brain health, is living a life of the mind.” (I would actually quibble with the word “best,” here, since we now know that nothing, but nothing, promotes overall brain health like vigorous exercise.)

“Lifetime intellectual enrichment might delay the onset of cognitive impairment,” notes the scientist who led the research team. How much? Three to six years, on average. For people born with the APOE4 gene variant, which carries a high risk for dementia, the difference is even bigger. For such unlucky folks, a lifetime habit of ongoing intellectual enrichment delayed cognitive impairment “by more than eight and one-half years, on average.” So there it is. “Lifelong learning,” so often touted as a better alternative than sinking into the barcalounger with a beer for your post-retirement decades, emerges as a prescription for the impending dementia epidemic. You can almost see the wheels turning in the mind of policy-makers. Make university courses free for seniors. Subsidize travel for them. Forgive their library fines.

Here’s the funny part. Eric tells me he doesn’t write his blog to “stay sharp.” (Also: “I leave solving puzzles to my wife.”) “I do it because I want to be loved,” he says. “And to prevent boredom. And to cheer me up.”

The blog entries, he says, are a good “counterbalance” to his real work: writing books. He has authored thirteen books of fiction and five of nonfiction. “The blog posts are quick and easy, which books are not.”

This week, instead of banging out an original piece, Eric linked to an article, from Slate magazine, about the hemlock plant and the poisoning of Socrates. He has bigger fish to fry.

“I am working on a murder mystery and have to find out who did it.”

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