January 8, 2006 - The Dallas Morning News - DallasNews.com  "Staying sharp" by Mike Hashimoto

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Staying sharp

It's important to exercise more than just your body

10:53 PM CST on Monday, January 8, 2007

I almost skipped past our story Tuesday about Earl Harville. I've assigned enough "holiday evergreens" valuable mostly for their slow-news-days shelf life to know one when I see one:

"At 93, he makes all the right moves Collin County: Checkers champ keeps sharp with 'good, clean' game."

Ho, ho, hum.

But for some reason, I stayed with this one, and by the time I finished reading about Mr. Harville, I felt pretty guilty. Here was that rare holiday evergreen with a real message for my personal brain.

In case you missed it, Mr. Harville is a pleasant fellow who lives near Lake Lavon, about three miles from where he grew up in Culleoka. Back in the day, he managed a grocery store and then worked 32 years for Dow Chemical in Freeport, all the while sharpening his skills at checkers, that jump-you-king-me board game we learned as kids.

His wife's long illness convinced him to leave checkers behind. After her death in 2002, his second wife pushed him to get back in the game. Last month, he won the Majors 2006 Checkers Tournament in Haleyville, Ala.

Ho, ho, hum, right?

Until you get to this: "He said checkers is a game of memory that keeps his mind sharp. He likes it because it's a good, clean game played by good, clean people."

Now I felt really guilty. This story was a reminder to me about my dad.

My dad was always one of the smartest people I'd met, even when he relied a bit more on the stick than the carrot to tutor his eldest son. He remains a smart, funny guy to this day. But at 73, I can see him slowing down.

He had a stroke a few years ago that cost him some of his mobility, slowing his gait and rendering his left arm fairly useless. He still keeps up with sports, and just about everything I know and appreciate about gambling came from him. (Really, there's a bunch of math involved. You have to know the odds to know where the house is stealing the least.)

As usual this Christmas, I asked my mom what might be a good gift for him. Usually, she says, "Oh, he doesn't need anything. How about a jacket?" This year, she vaguely mentioned some Nintendo product that had "brain" in the title.

As little as I know about video games, I was stumped. A little research turned up a Nintendo DS system which looks to me like a cross between a Game Boy and a very compact laptop and a game called Brain Age: "Now there's finally a way to make mental exercise simple, fun, even competitive."

Here I'd been encouraging my dad to ride his stationary bike or get out and walk, anything to exercise his body, and admonishing him when he didn't. What I hadn't considered was his brain, which I'd always regarded with a son's mix of dread and admiration. Watching TV and playing cribbage on the computer were fine ways to pass the time, but not enough.

Evidently, other people are figuring this out, too. It was a little bit of a task to lay hands on a Nintendo PS and Brain Age in the same place who knew this would be such a hot seller this gift-giving season but I lucked into a big-box retailer in Flower Mound with the system and another store across the street with the software.

Subsequent Googling also led me to an Associated Press report on a study in a recent Journal of the American Medical Association:

"Brief sessions of brain exercise can have long-lasting benefits for the elderly, helping them stay mentally fit for at least five years, one of the most rigorous tests of the 'use-it-or-lose-it' theory suggests. For people age 73 on average, just 10 sessions less time than it takes to stay physically fit helped keep their brains sharp."

My dad probably would whack me in the head with his good arm if I called him "elderly." I might get away with informing him that he's a good 20 years from Earl Harville, and look what the brain stimulation from something as simple as checkers has done for him.

Mike Hashimoto is an assistant editorial page editor for The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is mhashimoto@dallas news.com.

12/12/2006 - McKinney Courier-Gazette Star - "They don't act their age"

 12/16/2006 - The Wylie News - "Collin County 93-year-old leads a checkered life"

12/26/ 2006 - The Dallas Morning News   - "At 93, he's making all the right moves"

12-20-2007 Star Community News.htm "Birthday swim: Earl Harvell continues to be as active as ever at age 94"