March 6, 2008
Evanston Review
Nancy Burhop

As our bodies age, we can see the effects of our birthdays, written in our wrinkles and felt in an aching back. If we don’t exercise our bodies, stretch our muscles and use them, we lose our physical strength and elasticity. If we don’t eat right, we can spread, and not in a good way.

Now research at several top U.S. universities shows that the same is true for our brains — if you don’t continue to learn and use your brain, feed it the right foods, and do physical exercise as well, it suffers loss of plasticity, which can result in Minimal Cognitive Impairment (MCI), or age-related forgetfulness. This is not Alzheimer’s, which is a form of dementia, but the gradual decline of our short-term memory through lack of mental exercise.

“Memory is the biggest issue we face related to aging,” said Dr. Gary Small, Director of the University of California’s Center on Aging in a television interview in 2006. His research has lead to three books, one of which, The Memory Bible, is the basis for Memory Camp, a program offered at the North Shore Senior Center in Northfield.

“Memory loss causes anxiety in seniors,” said Dale LaPedus, coordinator for Memory Camp. “When they walk into a room and can’t remember why, they get anxious, and the anxiety increases the problem. Memory Camp helps them learn techniques so that they can remember, which lowers their anxiety.”

The classes are formatted as part lecture and part written or mental exercises, so participants have to put the techniques into practice. They get homework — skill builders to work on between sessions. For example, they may have to read an article in the newspaper, and then tell the story to someone who hasn’t read it, and then tell it to the entire class when they meet.

“When people didn’t live as long as they do now, memory loss wasn’t such a big problem,” said LaPedus. “We know now that memory loss doesn’t have to be part of aging, if we work on the causes and prevention.”

Northbrook resident and octagenarian Hope Warren Octogenarian ateended Memory Camper of the summer of 2006, and learned some practical suggestions.

“As I’ve gotten older I found I was forgetting little things, like where I put my keys,” she said. “Now when I put my keys down, I stop and think ‘I put my keys on the bookshelf in the living room,’ and I have a mental snapshot of where they are. I haven’t lost my keys in a long time.

“They told us when we started the course that you aren’t born with a great memory, you build it. You have to keep applying the lessons to keep your brain young.”

New science progam
The Presbyterian Homes, with facilities in Evanston, Arlington Heights and Lake Forest, are offering their residents a different memory enhancement course, a computer-based program developed by the Posit Science Corporation in California. Lead by Dr. Michael Merzenich, the corporation has a global team of 40 leading university-based researchers working on drug-free programs for improving brain health.

Merzenich said the research into age-related memory loss shows that “Brain fitness and vitality can improve, not decline as we age.”

Jane Grad, Vice-President of Information Services for the Presbyterian Homes, said “Our residents started asking us for some kind of brain fitness program, something that was entertaining as well as challenging, but science-based. They wanted something that was measurable. That’s why we chose the Posit Science program. They do a baseline test of each participant, on the second day, and then again on the 20th day and the 40th day. All the data — which is confidentia — go to PSC for their ongoing study.

“The premise is that new learning keeps the brain elastic, keeps the chemicals in the brain stimulated,” she said. The course is one to 1.5 hours a day, five days a week for eight weeks.

Although the participants are using a computer, computer skills aren’t necessary. They work with a monitor, a headset and a single click mouse.

Grad said that when residents complete the course, their memory is where it was at when they were 10 years younger.

“It’s been so successful, we’re moving the program to our other campuses.,” said Grad. “And now we’re offering a maintenance program for people who complete the course. It’s an investment in themselves, they want to be challenged.”

Better focus
Wendy Klein, a retired New Trier High School history teacher said she learned how to focus better when she participated in the first course at the Presbyterian Homes.

“When my daughter was here for Thanksgiving, she noticed an improvement right away, but I felt I lost some of the benefits between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I found that my hearing needed attention, which didn’t seem that important until I had difficulty with some of the auditory exercises. I’m getting hearing aids, which will help when I go to the theater.”

Klein is doing the maintenance program on her own.

“I was pushed by the program,” she said. “It changed my outlook about what I can do, what