independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Walking boosts your memory but beware of the 'earworm'

Long-term walking has been shown to measurably reduce the risk of dementia

As a regular user and occasional abuser of medical research findings, I owe a debt of gratitude to all those pointy-headed, white-coated types who labour to supply the hard-found pearls that I cast casually before you in these pages.

The often, but not always intuitable benefits of walking are confirmed, quantified and reported by a mostly anonymous army of perhaps unwitting walking propagandists.

One of the most compelling, but least explained benefits of walking is its effect on mental health; notably the preservation of memory. Long-term walking has been shown to measurably reduce the risk of dementia.

I don't want to trivialise the subject, or the research, but I'm delighted that my own experience bears out the connection between walking and recollection in a way that is, to me at least, quite vivid.

Walking regularly helps me unearth memories I didn't know I had, in the process shaking loose some of the stuff I'm glad to be rid of – if only for a while.

Important stuff, maybe, but even if I set out in the company of a black dog, with luck I can lose it somewhere along the way.

I'm horribly prone to earworms – the usually fragmentary songs that seem to come out of nowhere to infest the background of my mind. Michael Jackson songs I never liked in the first place dement me for days on end, playing on a five-second loop from hell.

Only in my right inner ear, though; the left one is reserved for the tinnitus that haunts my every waking moment.

Between the banshee and the banal, it's a wonder I'm sane at all. An assumption which I and the lady I startled on the a bridge in Portarlington last week had reason to doubt.

I was humming a jaunty but probably unrecognisable version of 'His Yoke is Easy, His Burthen is Light', the chart-topping Handel hit of yesteryear.

Easily mistaken, I later realised, for 'this rope is greasy, best fasten it tight', which is not what you want to hear being muttered breathlessly by an oncoming stranger.

But at least the poor lady was spared Derek and Clive's 'Jump', the timeless masterpiece that became my earworm du jour a couple of days later, and which is definitely not one for the vicar's tea party.

Or the guitar lead from 'Shake Some Action', which I think I have now mastered. In my head, that is, but thence, unreliably, to my lips.

I'm a lyrics wonk; my sad idea of excitement is remembering the words to a song I haven't heard in 30 years. A lonely preoccupation, but sometimes it's good to know that not all my temps are completely perdu. Somewhere in the act of walking there's a mechanism which stimulates the effect, and it has to be valuable.

Whatever the mechanism is – and there could be a researcher at the University of Tasmania putting the final touches to a paper on it at this very moment – my unscientific but anecdotally well-founded belief is that it is, or could be, profoundly important to all of us. Not just for the preservation of trivia, but for the shaking and dusting off of tired, sluggish minds.

Conor O'Hagan is editor of the bi-monthly Walking World Ireland magazine. www.walking worldireland.com

Irish Independent

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