- Posted by DanTomas
Topics discussed: mental skills training, longevity, and bilingualism
Let us start with a rhetorical question. Would you like to live a long life? Perhaps your answer is yes, although arguments can be made for a short life well spent. After all, “the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long” – Lao Tzu. Now let us modify our question to this, would you like to live over 100 years? Perhaps we are now thinking no. The issue here is that on the one hand we want to live into old age, but on the other we do not want to suffer the disabilities of ageing. A common misconception about gerontology is that it is just about extending the length of our lives. That we either die young and healthy or old and frail. This is a very binary way of thinking. The goal is in fact to extend the length of our time in fitness, and old age happens to be a byproduct of fitness.
Physical fitness is something that we see people focusing on, increasingly so in our generation. This is understandable, especially if you are are a career athlete and your fitness is also your source of income. We all have an appreciation for aesthetics to some degree, and it is a way of giving an immediate positive impression to the world. However, what is the value of a healthy body if we do not take care of our mental faculties? It is a worthy aspiration to be able to skateboard or embark on jungle treks in your seventies, but to realistically achieve this you need both the physical and mental capacity for high-intensity sport. You are going to need fast reaction speed, coordination, communication, ability to focus, good decision making, and high confidence. Ergo, you are going to need a mental skills training strategy.
I expect most people reading this blog to already be taking their physical fitness seriously. But how many of us are putting in the time to keep our minds sharp as well, to develop not just a beautiful body but a beautiful mind?
Traditional mental skills training for athletes aims to develop the following:
Diagram credit to Ohio Centre for Sport Psychology
The focus is on attitude and self-belief, and geared towards match day performance. It is about putting one’s state of mind in the optimum state for winning in competitive sport. In this guide we have a different objective which is to optimise one’s mental capacity for lifelong athleticism and longevity. The skills developed are similar, the notable exception is level 2 of the diagram; preparation for performance. We are not are not going to focus on that but you can supplement with additional techniques if you wish. I would advise on mastering one strategy rather than overextending your attention and risk losing motivation. Keep things simple and enjoy the speed of your progress.
Dementia and Cognitive Reserve
Dementia refers to a spectrum of age-related brain diseases with Alzheimer’s being the most common, accounting for approximately 60% of cases. Cognitive Reserve describes the brain’s ability to adapt to damage by re-routing neural networks and developing compensatory strategies. Researchers have found unsurprisingly that people who have more education or have done more mentally stimulating actives through their lives develop a higher cognition reserve, thus providing resilience against dementia.
It is true that dementia is inherited to a degree, the most studied Alzheimer’s risk gene is APOE which makes an essential protective protein. There is a range of APOE genotypes (genetic combinations) that provide varying risk levels. However, one thing we know is that whatever your risk profile is, everyone would benefit by increasing our resilience to dementia. Our brains have remarkable plasticity (adaptability) which means our ageing pathway is not determined by fate but by choice. This is analogous to us having different metabolic rates and body morphology in the gym. Some people are hard gainers, some have weak body parts that require more work on. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger’s legs. Your genetics is not an argument for not going to the gym and neither is it an argument for neglecting your mind.
Learning a second language is the most effective mental skills training strategy
Assuming we are on the same page at this point and you agree that having a cognitive strategy is important, you might then wonder why learning a second language is better than other intellectual pursuits. Arguments could be made for chess, taking an academic course, or learning an instrument. These are acceptable choices, but we are aiming for peak health on this site. The research on bilingualism in relation to increased cognitive reserve is abundant and growing. The learning curve with languages is perfect, in other words it’s suitably challenging with a wide range of methods available to suit your learning style. Not everyone is cut out for Astrophysics. Neither will it be a walk in the park such as learning the harmonica (no offence to harmonica players). Making the activity too easy will defeat the purpose of taking it up.
There is a type of halo effect (yes I’m bending its meaning here) with respect to languages in that they are inherently prosocial. An inevitable part of learning languages is that you will be talking to lots of new people, from a different culture, with different beliefs, throughout the course of your life. Your mind has multiple opportunities to develop. You will not necessarily get a prosocial effect by becoming a chess grandmaster. You are in a growth state, others will see a well-rounded motivated person that will be a positive influence on them. More importantly you will find a sense of satisfaction and confidence as you make ground. Arguably the prosocial effect is a significant aspect of the neuroprotective nature of bilingualism.
Do you think learning a language is too hard?
Start by killing that belief. It is an understandable misconception and it’s one I had myself. If you listen to a couple of native speakers of a foreign language in conversation, it sounds impossible to emulate. But that’s like looking at Mr Olympia and deciding never to work out. The reality is that if you put a good few months of work in, you will be able to have basic conversations. It doesn’t help that the methods used in schools are simply wrong. There’s been a lot of advancement in understanding how people pick up languages and some methods have risen to the top.
The one that has the best track record and the one I have chosen myself is Pimsleur. What makes Pimsleur better in my view is that it takes a lot of the effort out. Dr Paul Pimsleur was a professor and expert in applied linguistics and a founding member of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. The Pimsleur method is modelled after the learning process of children who speak a language without knowing its formal structure. It is audio based, so no textbooks, just as in a real life environment. You are not taught grammar directly but rather, they break down a real conversation, have you understand its components, and put it together for you. All that difficult grammar slots into place indirectly without any focus or effort on it. Cost wise at the time of writing lessons were $22/5 lessons or $120 for 30. I figure this sum is peanuts for the benefit of extending your years of fitness and building resilience to dementia.
Other comparable methods are Rosetta Stone and Babbel. I considered both platforms, the reviews are good too, but they are more technical. Pimsleur’s strength, and all reviewers have observed the same thing, is that you can become conversational faster. I am a fan of the path of least resistance, you need to consider the motivational effort required. If you want to take your grammar to the next level in future, this will be a lot easier when you are already having fun and are able to converse. For advanced learners looking to master a language, Rosetta Stone is the way forward. The cost is currently $300 for its software, and they offer online tuition over 6 or 12 months costing $240 and $280 respectively. I found the pace of learning on Babbel to be too slow for my taste, but if you are a visual type learner then Babbel is an option. However, I feel that between Pimsleur (for beginners) and Rosetta Stone (for advanced learners), you will have the best materials available to take you from noob to mastery in the fastest possible time.
Choosing a language
Again following the path of least resistance, if your first language is English, then the consensus is that Spanish or Italian is a good choice. Both are inherently intuitive as far as languages go, for example you almost always pronounce vowels and they are always pronounced the same. Verb conjugations are tricky but this something that Pimsleur seems very good at teaching indirectly. Another massive plus in choosing Spanish is there are over a billion Spanish speakers located in numerous exotic locations, and with Italian you have access to a country with more UNESCO world heritage sites than any other (47 cultural and 4 natural to be exact).
If you have an affinity to a certain culture, say Japanese or Russian, then there is a good argument for taking a so-called hard language head-on. It comes down to what culture you are most fascinated with and are most motivated to learn. I have chosen Spanish as my second language because of the allure of Spanish speaking tropical territories. Polyglots often point out that languages tend to get easier to learn after you have achieved fluency in 2 or 3 languages. If you are so inclined you can always take on a third language in time. There is no right or wrong choice, all are exciting albeit different adventures. With the accessibility to Pimsleur, Babbel, Rosetta Stone etc, there has never been a better time to implement an anti-ageing strategy for the mind.
Be strong, be happy, and enjoy your mental skills training adventure.
Do you have any experiences to share about mental skills training? let me know in the comments below.