Dr. John Medina’s book, “Brain Rules for Aging Well: 10 Principles for Staying Vital, Happy, and Sharp” (2017), disappointed me. Perhaps I had high expectations as I was impressed with his first book “Brain Rules.” He has labeled himself the “grumpy neuroscientist” and his writing in this book shows. The hefty price of the hardcover ($36.99 CAD) made me believe that the information contained within must be good. As a specialist in aging, and someone who is very interested in the concept of “aging well,” I had to take a look.
I was encouraged by most of the reviews that this book was full of useful and helpful strategies to help one age well. As I dug in, I quickly realized that the book’s premise was inspired by the findings of an experiment from 1979 known as the “counterclockwise study” (Langer). This was a very small study based on the experience of eight seventy-year-old men who were “stereotypically old.” For one week they were subjected to a time warp –– and lived as if it were 1959. After being immersed in the happy days of old, they came out seemingly younger –– happy with improved postures, hearing, and vision. Their hand grips strengthened and they moved with improved ease. As a woman in my fifties, I started to doubt how this book could adequately cover the topic of aging well – and my doubts were confirmed.
The book is divided into four sections, with the proposed “10 Brain Rules for Aging Well” which Medina starts and ends with as the guiding principles. Parts called Social Brain, Thinking Brain, Body and Brain, and Future Brain with a handy index at the end comprises the layout of the book. He refers to many scientific studies and other resources, and he directs us to “Extensive, notated citations at http://www.brainrules.net/references.” I found this style of referencing quite odd, and it was difficult to find what I was looking for. When I sit down to read a book, I don’t want to have to go to the internet to find the references. Also, the way the references are listed doesn’t make it easy to find what you are looking for.
I found myself bored with all the scientific jargon and his stories to help explain some of the complicated workings of the brain didn’t hit the mark. I ended up skim reading through quite a bit. Some of his aging well advice, such as engaging in friendly arguments and playing certain video games were quite surprising to me. I have yet to understand how a specialist in brain research would suggest arguing with people and playing video games as part of a good plan for overall brain health.
I liked the summaries at the end of each chapter. Medina’s advice about exercise, healthy diet, friendships and “say no to retirement” were well-taken. I found the discussion on the updated term “working memory” for the outdated term “short-term memory” interesting. The personal stories he shares were endearing, especially the one about nostalgia, reminiscing and the “our song” syndrome he and his wife share.
The book was apparently well-proofed and edited (as Medina notes in his acknowledgments); however, I found two glaringly obvious errors. The first was on page 104, where Medina mistakenly tells us that reading from books 3.5 hours a DAY will help reduce our risk of dying by a certain age when compared to those who didn’t. In actuality, the research states it is a 30-minutes-a-day activity, which translates into 3.5 hours WEEKLY.
The second error, which I was astonished by (as an author and editor myself), was on page 164. Medina was talking about research on exercise done with people with limited mobility. He said that the participants were “assessed by a test called” and there was a blank space after that. The next paragraph started with a period. Perhaps that was the period that he deliberately omitted back in the introduction on page 7? I’d be pretty ticked if I were Medina, knowing this one slipped by all the reviewers.
I believe this was a good attempt by Medina to write a book on Aging Well; however, his dated references to works from 30-40 years ago (e.g., Hauri’s book No More Sleepless Nights, and the movie Cocoon) made me less confident in thinking he was using fresh and current research. This book was a good attempt at starting the conversation about brain health and aging well, but I think he has a lot more reading and researching to do on the subject. One last thought –– I wish he’d avoid using the term “elderly.” That’s a term we are getting away from in the aging well literature when discussing older adults. I believe mainstream media is also moving away from using that term.
Angela G. Gentile, MSW, RSW