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Memory fitness

Faced with the fear of growing forgetful, baby boomers are turning to mental aerobics to train the brain to remember.

June 16, 2003|Nora Zamichow | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Paul Milberg, a plastic surgeon with a thriving practice, has trouble remembering patients' names when he encounters them outside his Tarzana office.

Julie Engelman, a science teacher, occasionally finds herself wondering what it was that she wanted in the kitchen.

Candy Mintz, a mother of two and part-time business manager, believes she's single-handedly boosted the Post-It note industry; her little yellow reminders dot the bathroom mirror, kitchen cabinet, front door and her car's steering wheel.

Mintz, Engelman and Milberg were classmates at a UCLA memory training course intended for baby boomers who have begun to slip with names, shopping lists and the titles of the books atop their night tables. At a recent class, several people hadn't done homework. "I, um, forgot," one woman blushed. "I even forgot I had class tonight."

Three decades after baby boomers launched a physical fitness craze, the specter of forgetfulness has led to another type of training: mental aerobics. Increasing evidence suggests that mental exercise -- anything from crossword puzzles to learning another language -- helps stave off mental decline. It's the use-it-or-lose-it approach.

The new evidence, coupled with the graying of 79 million baby boomers, has led to a proliferation of books, software, videos and brain-training programs nationwide. It's "Brain Upgrade" at New York's Open Center. Or "Boost Your Memory Power" at Pasadena City College. Or "Powerful Memory" at the Memory Training Institute in Connecticut.

In part, these products and courses prey upon everyone's worry that their minds are not as sharp as they once were.

"You exercise and eat well; there's a fear that your brain is not going to keep up with the rest of you," said Lawrence Katz, professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center and an author of "Keep Your Brain Alive." "More and more emphasis is placed on keeping your body young and your brain younger."

In November, the National Institute on Aging published its findings showing that mental training improved memory, concentration and problem-solving skills among adults 65 years and older. The study, the largest of its kind, looked at 2,802 individuals, assessing them after a five-week course.

One group of participants got no training at all, without substantial change. Those who received training in memory, problem solving and information processing showed significant improvements, which persisted for at least two years after the program. Of those in the memory group, 26% improved.

Kathy Koepke, an NIA social science analyst, is quick to caution that the results were detected in a laboratory and wouldn't necessarily translate to everyday life. Nonetheless, the study helped bolster the brain-training movement. "Everyone wants to find a way to stay cognitively intact as long as possible," said Koepke, who takes vitamin E and drinks soy milk as health and anti-aging measures.

The interest in battling age is, well, age-old, Koepke said. Aristotle had what Koepke politely calls "cognitive memory challenges." What's new are the sense of urgency and flurry of attention. Although brain training has been around for more than a decade, more and more participants are individuals in their 40s and 50s with increasingly mainstream professions, said Paula Oleska, president of Natural Intelligence Systems, who teaches "Brain Gym" and "Brain Upgrade" in New York.

On average, individuals begin forgetting at age 35, said Fred Chernow, author of "The Sharper Mind" and retired professor of psychology at New York's St. John's University. "You start forgetting -- misplacing car keys or glasses," he said. "It progresses to 'where did I park the car?' "

Chernow maintains that simple exercises, such as memorizing license plates of surrounding cars when you're stuck in traffic, help ward off mental flab. "People who do mental exercises really stay sharper longer than couch potatoes velcroed to their sofa."

Explanations for why we forget are as numerous as the techniques for aiding memory.

Chernow, who is 70, says it's information overload, that we must remember more than ever before. When Chernow started working, he was expected to know his name, address and phone number. Today, people also must know various passwords, Social Security and personal identification numbers, fax and cell phone numbers.

Others say Americans sleep less and experience more stress -- both factors affecting memory.

Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging, says the juggling of various tasks -- an attribute of many individuals' everyday lives -- can prompt memory overload. "We end up multi-tasking, and that's the biggest reason we can't remember,'' said Small, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and author of "The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young." His research provides the basis for UCLA's memory courses.

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