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Nationals’ manager Davey Johnson maintains sharp mental edge

Washington field boss exemplifies new science of neuroplasticity

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The subject was Davey Johnson, the 69-year-old manager of the Washington Nationals, and as F.P. Santangelo sat in the team's home dugout on a recent afternoon, he struggled to keep a straight face.

Twelve years ago, Mr. Santangelo was a utility player for the Los Angeles Dodgers, then managed by Mr. Johnson. Today, the color analyst for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network is long retired from baseball — and Mr. Johnson is still leading a big-league club.

Has Mr. Santangelo's former skipper changed with age?

"Davey's lost it," Mr. Santangelo said. "He has no idea what town he's in right now. He thinks he's managing the [Baltimore] Orioles."

Mr. Santangelo grinned.

"No, he's as sharp as he's ever been," he said. "No doubt about it."

Long considered one of the brightest minds in Major League Baseball, Mr. Johnson has guided the young and talented Nationals to a breakthrough season — including a division title, for the first postseason appearance by a Washington baseball team since 1933. And he is a leading contender for the National League's Manager of the Year award, despite being the oldest manager in the majors.

Mr. Johnson's success raises an intriguing question: How does he remain mentally proficient at his age, particularly in a line of work that requires statistical command, stellar memory, quick decision-making and astute emotional judgment?

The answer may lie in Mr. Johnson's brain — and in the emerging scientific concept of neuroplasticity.

Once upon a time, conventional wisdom held that the human brain developed along a fixed arc, a curveball sailing through time. Born with hard-wired mental ability, we peaked in our 20s and then dropped off, ultimately lucky to remember where we left our car keys.

Over the past two decades, however, researchers have discovered that our brains are more flexible and resilient — more plastic — than previously believed. Through our habits and actions, we can alter our mental hardware and software, staving off and perhaps reversing age-related decline.

As it turns out, Mr. Johnson is an unwitting case study in pre-empting trouble with the curve. Here's why.

A lifelong learner

Mr. Johnson isn't just a baseball manager. He's a full-fledged action figure.

He develops real estate in Florida, including a lakeside fishing camp and a recreational vehicle park. He is building a bank. He helped found an Arena League football team. He once managed the Netherlands' Olympic baseball squad and has traveled around the world. He's a self-professed "gadget geek" who stays current with video games (which he buys for his grandchildren) and mobile computing. (Mr. Johnson has an iPad and an iPhone; at Nationals spring training, sources report, his devices were the only ones to consistently get a network connection.)

"In the off season, I have a lot of passions," Mr. Johnson said.

He has been ever thus. When he played baseball and basketball at Texas A&M in the early 1960s, he wanted to be a veterinarian and studied oceanography; at Trinity University in San Antonio, he studied home building before settling on a mathematics degree.

While playing for the Orioles, Mr. Johnson designed and built his first house. He also took a computer course at Johns Hopkins University.

"That was when they had the old 360 IBM and you had to use the card punch to get it to work," Mr. Johnson said. "I wrote programs in Fortran and Cobol. One of my famous programs was called 'Optimize Your Lineup.' "

Mr. Johnson's moneyball-before-"Moneyball" lineup-optimizing program — and mindset — informed much of his later managing career, even if it didn't go over too well with his Orioles teammates.

In one memorable instance, Mr. Johnson informed struggling Baltimore pitcher Dave McNally that he was in an "unfavorable chance deviation" — in other words, he should stop trying to aim for the corners of the strike zone and instead throw down the middle, the better to hit the corners.

From that moment on, Mr. Johnson's nickname with the Orioles was "Dum-Dum."

"I've always been interested in learning different things and in different challenges," Mr. Johnson said. "When you're constantly studying and feeding the inquisitive part of your brain, it keeps your mind flexible."

Biologically speaking, Mr. Johnson is right: Nothing boosts the mind quite like new learning. Far from structurally static — akin to the microchips in a smart phone — the brain is ever-changing and evolving at the microscopic level, with billions of neurons constantly forming new circuits and connections that impact cognition, memory and behavior.

This, in essence, is neuroplasticity.

"The general idea is that the brain is like a muscle," said John H. Byrne, chairman of the department of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Medical School. "You have to exercise it. If you don't, it starts to weaken. Use it or lose it. This is backed up by lots of data."

When Washington-based neuropsychologist Marsha Lucas worked in brain-injury and stroke rehabilitation two decades ago, scientists thought the adult brain could not grow new neurons and that mental capacity invariably decreased with time.

"It turns out that is actually not the case," Ms. Lucas said. "If you ask something of your brain, it will respond by beefing up the neural pathways associated with that. Novel experiences activate new neuronal growth and new synaptic connections so that your brain is faster and better at new things."

Cases in point? A classic study of London taxicab drivers found that the areas of their brains dealing with spatial memory and navigation were highly developed compared to those of nondrivers. A University of California, Berkeley, study found that intensive LSAT study increased connections between the parts of the brain associated with reasoning and thinking. A Harvard University study found that longtime meditators had less age-related shrinkage of the brain's outer layer — associated with executive function — than both older and younger people who did not meditate.

"Our brains have the capacity to make changes in response to what we experience." Ms. Lucas said.

Consequently, people can affect their brains simply by choosing particular experiences. Hence the burgeoning popularity of crossword puzzles, Sudoku and a whole slew of "brain training" games and software, the latter estimated by Education Week to be a $295 million worldwide market in 2009.

Though brain-training exercises purport to improve memory and cognition, a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that improving on a key task used in working memory training did not correspond with improvements in a battery of 17 other measures of cognitive ability.

"Basically, solving crosswords makes you a better crossword solver," Mr. Byrne said. "It doesn't make your entire brain better."

The real key, Ms. Lucas said, is to cross-train. To engage in activities and experiences that challenge the brain in continually novel ways. Research suggests that an older person who learns a new language may be able to learn other things more quickly — and do things that require areas of the brain responsible for different tasks, such as speech and dancing, to work in tandem.

"What you want for a sharp, well-functioning brain are areas that are integrated," she said. "So when Davey Johnson is using statistics and also looking at the physical aspects of a player's swing, he is putting together two different parts of brain function. That keeps his brain in better shape."

Body and mind

Speaking of keeping in shape: Despite having undergone serious heart and appendix surgeries, Mr. Johnson still works out on a regular basis.

Sometimes, in fact, he seems to forget that he's decades removed from being a four-time All-Star who hit 43 home runs for the Atlanta Braves in 1973.

"Coming out of spring training, I was running so hard trying to get in shape to take ground balls and throw batting practice that I pulled a [hamstring]," Mr. Johnson said. "I was overdoing it a little bit. I tend to do that."

If running can be rough on Mr. Johnson's body, it likely is good for his mind. According to neurologists, regular physical exercise both boosts and preserves the brain by:

Stimulating the creation of new neurons;

Releasing hormones that help maintain connections between neurons;

Providing ample blood flow to the brain, which uses about 20 percent of the body's total supply;

Accelerating production of new cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with cognition and memory.

"The hippocampus is kind of like a booth that enters a toll road, a gateway to new memories," said Dr. Ausim Azizi, chairman of the Neurology Department at Temple University Medical School. "People whose hippocampus is damaged don't lose any memories of what happened before, but they also don't learn anything new.

"So physical workouts are really important. Active patients who have Parkinson's disease hit the threshold of being dysfunctional much later than people who are less active."

Scientists group brain tissue into two categories: gray matter, the neuron-heavy area of the brain where functions such as seeing and producing emotions occur, and white matter, which acts as the electrochemical messaging superhighway between different areas of gray matter.

Last year, researchers in Texas recruited a group of elite senior athletes to study the impact of exercise on long-term cognition. The athletes had an average age of 74, were regionally or nationally competitive and had been training for at least 15 years.

"We know that every year you lose one to two percent of your brain matter due to aging, but we wanted to see how the Masters athletes compared to sedentary, relatively healthy people of the same average age," said Benjamin Tseng, a research fellow with the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.

Mr. Tseng and his colleagues gave both groups brain scans and had them take a battery of tests. They discovered that the athletic seniors had more gray matter in regions of the brain associated with motor control and spatial relationships.

More surprisingly, the researchers also found that the athletic seniors outperformed their sedentary counterparts on the cognitive tests — measuring attention, executive function and short- and long-term memory — and even compared favorably to a control group of healthy 30-year-olds.

"They were able to perform on par with the younger subjects, which was impressive enough, and on a couple of tests they were kicking the younger kids' butts," Mr. Tseng said. "Now, these were dedicated athletes, training six to seven days a week. But some of them started in their late 50s.

"That tells me that even in your middle age, there may be a chance that you can rewire and reprogram and give benefit to your brain through exercise."

Social networking

Mr. Johnson's job involves more than studying statistics, filling out lineup cards and deciding when to bring in relief pitchers. It involves knowing his players as people — knowing when a struggling Danny Espinosa needs an encouraging word or when rookie phenom Bryce Harper should be left in the lineup to work through a cold spell or when to call an unexpected, tension-busting closed-door team meeting during a late August losing streak.

After the meeting, Mr. Johnson told reporters what he had said to his players: "When we lose it's harder on the coaches and the manager. We don't sleep as well. But if they start winning a few games, they start making it easier on this old guy. And we all got a good laugh out of everything."

Befitting one of the youngest teams in the major leagues, the Nationals have a notably loose, sociable clubhouse. Mr. Johnson fits right in. And that, too, is good for his brain health.

Research shows that socially engaged people are less likely to develop dementia. Animal studies — mostly in mice and rats — indicate that social isolation may reduce neuroplasticity.

According to health and aging expert Dr. William J. Hall, older people lacking socialization tend to deteriorate mentally at a quicker rate than their more engaged peers, and the development of social relationships has been linked to at least temporary improvements in memory.

"If you think about what a coach does, they teach," said Dr. Hall, director of the Center for Healthy Aging, based at Highland Hospital, an affiliate of the University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical Center. "That is a very high level of socialization, because most teaching is intellectual communication. And that is very good for the brain.

"If I were the czar of the universe and could prescribe the very best way for older adults to age in very healthy fashion, particularly with memory, I would send them all to Buenos Aries and have them learn to tango. It requires complex physical movement. There's remarkable socializing, since you're as close as you can get to another human being. And most important, you're having fun."

Minding stress

The last part is crucial. While exercise and engagement are manna for the mind, stress is more like Kryptonite.

Studies in humans and animals indicate that stress hormones can inhibit the formation of new cells and connections in the memory centers of the brain and that chronic stress increases risk for Alzheimer's.

According to Ms. Lucas, increased stress also corresponds with increased inflammation and an overall decrease in physical well-being, ranging from digestive problems to overloaded adrenal and nervous systems to cardiovascular issues — none of which is conducive to mental clarity.

"We think that mental aging actually has a lot to do with your cardiovascular system," Mr. Tseng said. "At the end of the day, the heart is the engine of the body, and when your brain doesn't receive blood, you're missing oxygen and nutrients."

During his previous managing gigs in New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles, Mr. Johnson was known for being irascible — particularly when butting heads with team ownership. Though he can seem more placid with the Nationals, even soft-spoken, he laughs off suggestions that he has mellowed.

"The stress is the same; I just tend to keep it in," Mr. Johnson said.

How does Mr. Johnson cope?

By focusing on solving problems. And by living — and worrying — in the present. "My wife will be worried about where we are going in six months, what beach we're going to lie on, what country we'll be in," he said. "I'm in the now. I'm aware of tomorrow, but only because what you do today will affect it. That's as far as I go, and I'm comfortable with that."

Though taking matters "one game at a time" is perhaps the hoariest of athletic cliches, Ms. Lucas said that a solution-seeking, now-oriented approach is highly effective in reducing stress and anxiety, in part because of neuroplasticity. To wit: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have found that Tibetan monks are able to alter the physical structure of their brains through meditative practice and that habitual meditation reduces the size of an area of the brain that controls fear and is linked to aggression.

Over the course of the Nationals' season, Mr. Johnson's players repeatedly have praised his keen intelligence, astute observation, calm demeanor and ability to connect — his ability to stay ahead of the curve. Are white and gray matter the hidden reasons?

Mr. Santangelo has a simpler explanation.

"We're in first place with a great club and a great bunch of guys, and a good organization that does things the right way," he said. "Davey's just having way more fun here than he ever had in Los Angeles."

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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