August 12, 2022
CBS News Bay Area
Amanda Starrantino

There is a measure of new hope for victims and families battling the devastating effects Alzheimer’s and related dementias.

New research and programs are helping to slow the advancing symptoms and may possibly push off any early on-set.  One such new program is at the San Francisco YMCA.

“I met her at United Airlines, I was working as a ticket agent and this is while we were going to school,” remembers 86-year-old Richard Nicewonger. “And she came up with a ticket to go to Hawaii. She was an employee also at United. And later we started meeting on the Greyhound bus going to work. That was good days, good days like today.”

The distant memory is one Nicewonger holds close to his heart and his mind.  But as the San Francisco Air Force veteran ages, pieces of his life’s story are becoming a little difficult to grasp.

“It was getting a little foggy in the morning,” Nicewonger says.

On the days when Nicewonger is feeling cloudy in his mind, he turns to a fairly new brain health program called Brain HQ based out of San Francisco.

“What it does is it rewires the brain to help people think faster and focus better and remember more,” said Dr. Henry Mahncke.

Dr. Mahncke helped develop the training program.  It has been in the works for years.  In 2017, a study presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference  found an almost 30% reduction in dementia risk in older adults that used Brain HQ.

“The most powerful tools we have are changes in how we use our brain,”  Dr. Mahncke said “It’s like brain training, physical exercise, diet, nutrition, sleep, social contact and stress, all those contribute to building a more resilient brain and then helping put off or delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia later in life.”

This concept of brain fitness is a team effort between Posit Science, the San Francisco YMCA and UCSF.

“You’ll be doing a combination of physical activities, learning about nutrition understanding sleep and of course are critical brain health training,” said Chip Rich,  Senior Vice President of Operations of San Francisco YMCA.

The San Francisco YMCA has already incorporated diabetes prevention into their programming and they saw success.  Now, Rich wants those tools to implement more brain health options for the Y’s older participants, using a community setting to build long lasting behavior change.

“As we age all parts of our body slow down including our brain and we want as a community to live in a society where we just don’t warehouse our seniors,” says Rich.  “We need to pay attention to the brain health as well as the physical health.”

The program uses the Brain HQ technology and incorporates it into a group course for participants at the YMCA.

Prevention strategies like diet, exercise and lifestyle changers will all be combined into one program to help implement these long-lasting impacts and push off any early on-set of dementia.

Nicewonger has been using Brain HQ on his computer at home for almost five years now.  For Nicewonger, it is what he can do to be able to cherish those simple moments that make life worth living.

“I want to hang out with my wife as long as I can in the condition that I am in,” said Nicewonger.  “I have to be around for my daughter and my son, it is damn important.:

“I will show you a picture of my Australian Shepherd.  They are all marvelous, but she is a topper at this stage in my life. That is why I want to be able to enjoy those things. I enjoy following my curiosity. I don’t want to be drugged up and somewhere else.”

The YMCA of San Francisco is currently taking sign ups.  It is free to participate in and will be once a week for 12 wees.  The initial pilot is geared up for 80 people.