Brain fitness regimens promise strong memory as we age — but do they work?

    The threat of age-related memory loss and dementia holds a special terror for most people. Who are we, if we don’t have our mental facilities?

    This is part of a series on aging in the Delaware Valley called “Gray Matters: New Tools for Growing Older” from the WHYY Health and Science Desk. The six-week series features audio and video stories as well as personal essays.

    The threat of age-related memory loss and dementia holds a special terror for most people. Who are we, if we don’t have our mental facilities?

    A slew of books and “brain fitness” regimens promise that we can take charge of our aging brains. Do they work?

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    A forgotten house key or a missed turn used to be minor annoyances for Abington resident Gayle Warburton. Now, they strike fear into her heart.

    “You question everything that you do wrong, you  think is that… you know?” wonders Warburton.  She is attending a class for seniors at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is learning techniques to cope with her memory loss. Participants in the class only have mild cognitive problems at this point, but are very anxious about the future. They wonder how the decline will progress, how they will live, and who will care for them.

    The suffering and loss associated with dementia are heart-wrenching. The cost for healthcare and lost productivity is staggering.

    The World Health Organization predicts that the number of people with dementia will triple by 2050.

    So what if we could prevent memory loss from occurring in the first place?

    Enter “The Memory Bible,” “Sharp Brains,” or “The Healthy Brain Kit.” These books and DVDs promise tools for healthy brain aging, a strong memory, and even protection from dementia:

    One prolific brain health author is Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Longevity Center in Los Angeles.

    He says that non-genetic factors, such as lifestyle behaviors, choices we make every day, have a much greater impact on the risk for Alzheimer’s disease than many people realize.

    His latest book in this increasingly crowded field is “The Alzheimer’s Prevention program” which he sells with a caveat: “We can’t guarantee that people will not get Alzheimer’s disease in their lifetime, but we can show them the scientific evidence, give them a program that allows them to get started.”

    When people hear about brain fitness, they tend to think it means giving their brain a good workout. Crossword puzzles have been part of Mary Jane Wheeler’s daily routine since she retired from teaching over ten years ago. She does the one in her daily newspaper, and additional ones online.

    Wheeler says she has been getting faster, and can do increasingly difficult puzzles. She also plays Bridge, reads a lot, and stays socially active. She feels so far, her brain fitness regiment has good results. “I don’t know if my children would agree with that, but I feel like for my age I am pretty sharp,” Wheeler said with a laugh.

    But, the thing is, working your brain is only one part of the equation. Physical exercise and diet are equally, if not more, important.

    “What’s good for your heart is good for your head,” is what University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Steven Arnold tells his patients. He heads the Penn Memory Center. Arnold says a healthy diet and physical exercise are crucial for healthy brains. In addition, he says research has found a strong connection between stress and later dementia. But will healthy habits protect our future brains? Arnold doesn’t quite buy it.

    “I think you can’t promise too much with that,” Arnold cautioned. “There are these risk factors we can try to modify them, we can improve our exercise, I think that that does make a difference. Is it going to make enough difference, to counteract a biological or a disease process, we don’t know, I think that would be pushing it.”

    Healthy brain guru Dr. Gary Small says just stalling brain and memory decline may be a good enough technique. “We might be able to delay the onset of symptoms, maybe a few years, and for many people, that could mean never getting the symptoms in their lifetime,” said Small.

    Penn’s Steven Arnold says for prevention techniques to work, people of middle age would have to start changing their habits now. “What effect that has in the long term, that is what is really interesting to me, because I am in my 50s now, what I do right now is going to determine what I’m like when I am 75 or 85,” said Arnold.

    He says if lots of middle-aged people embrace healthy lifestyles now, the next decades will reveal new clues regarding the impact on healthy brain aging.

    Dr. Gary Small is confident that his generation is up for the challenge. “We baby boomers are very proactive, we don’t want to sit back, we want to do something about it, and we tend to do that as a generation,” said Small.

    Steven Arnold is not entirely convinced, he says often behavior is the hardest thing to change with patients.

    Will healthy behaviors reduce the bleak predictions for dementia rates? As with so many issues in the last 65 years, the baby boomer generation will once again hold the key.

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