Q&A with PBS Professor Robert Santulli

by Katherine Cline | 4/24/19 2:15am

“I’m too old for this!” I have exclaimed in frustration time and time again as I open my phone and bounce between four different apps before eventually putting my device down in defeat. Why did I open my phone again? Mindlessness and forgetfulness can plague even the most Type-A college student. Though I am only 20, I swear on my life that my memory is not nearly as good as it used to be. But how much of that cod psychology can be written down to confirmation bias? In order to learn more about the brain of college students and the science of forgetting, I spoke to psychology and brain sciences professor Robert Santulli, who specializes in aging, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

What can you tell us about the cognition of the average college student? 

RS: In general, people are cognitively at their best in their college years and for a few years thereafter. Cognition gradually declines in the years and decades afterward so that, by late middle age, most people are aware that they are not as sharp mentally as they once were; they don’t think as rapidly, aren’t able to multi-task as effectively and so forth. However, there are some issues which will impair cognition even in college students, and these should be noted. One is excessive use of alcohol. Not just when one is intoxicated, of course, but for some time thereafter. If students drink heavily every weekend, this will affect their overall mental sharpness adversely. It may be noticeable, or not, but it very definitely occurs. Sometimes students don’t realize the impact on their cognition until they stop drinking completely and then realize how much sharper their thinking has become. 

Another is inadequate sleep. This is a very widespread problem, not only at Dartmouth, but at other colleges, I’m sure. Just because you think you can stay up until 4 a.m. and still function well the next day doesn’t mean you really can. It should be obvious that getting only a few hours of sleep at night makes thinking worse. You can only very partially reverse this with coffee. For most people at this age, that is in the range of eight hours.  

Depression, or other significant mental stress, is another issue. People of any age who are depressed don’t remember as well, have difficulty putting in the mental effort and often lack the motivation to try. Decision-making is impaired, and the ability get excited about something intellectually disappears. Mental health issues are widespread and probably on the rise in college. Cognitive impairment is not the only reason to be concerned about this, of course, but it is important to realize that it is usually a significant component of depression or any other serious mental stress.  

How do environmental or behavioral factors impact the mechanisms in the brain which create memory? 

RS: I addressed the important ones in the first question. While they are common in young people, these things can occur at any age. Other factors that contribute to poor memory and an increased likelihood of developing dementia are poverty and racism. There are multiple factors involved here, including diet, stress, medical illness, education and so forth. But it is an unfortunate fact that dementia — while it can and does affect people from all backgrounds — is significantly more common in blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and the poor. There may be some biological or genetic contributors, but overwhelmingly, this has to do with socioeconomic factors. In addition, researchers suspect that as-yet-unidentified environmental toxins may contribute to dementia, although we don’t really know what these are, and this is not really proven.  

How can younger generations take preventative steps against Alzheimer’s? 

RS: Unfortunately, there are no definitive ways to “prevent” Alzheimer’s, only to lower the risk. Education is important. Not only in younger years, but throughout life, exercising your brain by learning new things helps build what is called “cognitive reserve,” which will help prevent, or at least delay, the onset of dementia. Other important factors include staying physically healthy, moderate exercise throughout life and avoiding the issues I mentioned in the first question. And the other thing I like to emphasize that people can do to help move toward prevention is to give money to organizations, like the Alzheimer’s Association, that help fund research into the disease and its causes.

There is a conception that my generation, with our iPhones and 24-hour news cycles, has a shorter attention span. Is this true? 

RS: This hasn’t been proven yet, but many people suspect it’s true. I’m all for new technology and rely on my iPhone a great deal, but it’s important to be able to disconnect oneself from it when other things are going on, like being in class or trying to do homework, for example. If you can’t do anything without having the phone in your hand and constantly checking messages, Facebook, Instagram, et cetera, then your attention is continually being divided. This certainly will contribute to poorer overall cognitive ability. Even if you think you can do all of this multitasking without losing your mental sharpness, you can’t. It’s important to try to be able to set the phone aside when appropriate and to learn to really focus for a prolonged period of time. This will be necessary and valuable not only in college but throughout life.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.