According to studies reported in Tuesday’s Washington Post, both mental and physical exercise are good for preserving the health of the brain.
A research review published in the journal Psychological Medicine found that people who have a significant “brain reserve,” or intellectual base, have a much lower risk of developing dementia. “In virtually every study in which we’ve looked, the more education you have, the lower the prevalence of dementia in that group,” said Steven DeKosky, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
Jewish history, of course, is replete with scholarly leaders who were celebrated for their brilliance well into their 90s. The fact that they constantly exercised their brains probably played a role — “if you don’t use it, you lose it.”
A friend of mine who learned in Ner Yisrael told me a story of the first Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Ruderman zt”l, who complained late in life that his memory wasn’t what it was. Someone cautiously asked what the Rosh Yeshiva meant — forgetting one of the halachos (laws) as determined by the Rambam (Maimonides), for example? “Chas V’Shalom (Heaven forbid),” he replied, “that I should forget a single Rambam!”
Outside the Orthodox community, it is often assumed that people able to memorize large works, such as the Talmud or the Rambam’s “Yad HaChazakah” Code, are gifted in the area of memorization to the detriment of their ability to engage in creative thought. There is, apparently, a neurological phenomenon of this nature, and, by and large, people of intelligence (e.g. Einstein) are not known for having memorized large works.
A frum doctor explained why this is so unknown outside our community: who else encounters documents that they consider worth memorizing, despite their great size? The Bible, for example, is much smaller, and thus more achievable — but nonetheless, to find someone who has memorized it is quite rare. We are truly the People of the Book in terms of how we revere and analyze our Holy texts — and, apparently, that devotion has numerous benefits to our brains.
As I mentioned, the doctors also found benefits in physical exercise — and there is interest in activities that combine the two:
Hybrid activities — those combining a mental stimulus with some other action — are also the subject of scientific interest. “Some of the strongest evidence is for activities that involve physical, mental and social at the same time,” said [psychologist Elizabeth] Edgerly. Examples include social dancing and coaching or refereeing a team sport, she said.
This reminds me of the one time I was privileged to hear Rav Mechachem Shach zt”l deliver a shiur klali, a weekly class concerning the topic then being studied by the yeshiva, for all students who chose to attend. Then in his early 90s, he walked slowly to the podium, obviously frail. But as he began to speak he truly came to life, gesticulating and delivering his points energetically. Periodically he would pause, smiling as his students turned to each other and debated between them the point the Rosh Yeshiva had just made. And someone told me later that, in his younger years, Rav Shach used to practically jump off the platform as he was making his case. Mental, physical and social activity all rolled into one.
It is interesting that in a yeshiva, learning isn’t a sedentary activity. People jump up, walk around, and argue with such obvious effort that they are getting a good cardiovascular workout in the meantime.
Often we don’t learn that way a few decades later — and apparently, that’s not such a good idea. Doctors now say that healthy arguments are healthy in more ways than one!