Tuesday, April 8, 2014

the problem with research

Researchers studied a group of 86 women between 70 and 80 to see the effect of twice-weekly exercise on intellectual function. Turns out aerobic exercise resulted in bigger hippocampi (a part of the brain associated with memory) but worse verbal learning.

How the heck do you parse that? Yes, I should definitely get set up to connect with some of the many opportunities offered at Terwilliger Plaza to get regular exercise. Yes, I'm sure it would benefit me in all sorts of ways -- healthier heart and lungs, trimmer body, more energy. And, according to the study, a bigger hippocampus. But worse verbal learning than if I had just sat and stared out the window (which I do a lot here, since I have a mountainside and burgeoning greenery and birds to look at).

But aerobic exercise (the kind that makes me pant and makes my heart beat faster and makes my blood vessels work harder and makes me sweat and makes me ache the next day) might make me stupider.

Or maybe the experimental result was a statistical anomaly. Maybe if they did the study again, the decrement in verbal learning would disappear. Or maybe the hippocampal size increase would disappear. Or maybe they'd all turn bright blue and fly away into the cloudless sky.

Dang. I am a geek. I believe science is the best we can do to move slowly toward actual new knowledge about the world around us. But it seems to work more reliably on things than on people. How often have you read "New Study Reveals Secret to ..." ... to eternal youth, to better orgasms, to losing weight while eating chocolate, to curing acne or cancer or underarm odor? And yet still we suffer.

Probably the problem has to do with reading news reports about specific studies on populations of less than 100,000. That's it. The problem is verbal learning. So if I just get going on the exercise, I'll be physically healthier and less likely to believe in news articles about small studies.

See? It all works out in the end. 


  1. Think you'll find that exercise has a marked impact on things like dementia and Alzheimers. While you may not learn any quicker, you might just hold on to what you have longer. Things like "brain games" (Lumosity.com) cand help with stuff like short-term memory but evidence is conclusive that exercise (mostly improving oxygen saturation of brain cells) has the greatest benefit.

  2. I have to question that research!!!