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You can forget about 'senior moments'

Hospitals and businesses are catering to a generation worried about memory loss. 'Use it or lose it' applies, experts say.

April 13, 2008|Lisa Anderson | Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK — Can you remember your best friend's address? Your cousin's birthday? Your own child's cellphone number? The name of the attorney general of the United States?

No? You're not alone, and you're not necessarily on the far side of 40.

The proliferation of cellphones, BlackBerrys, Outlook calendars and other "smart" technology -- not to mention frenetic multitasking and easy Googling -- has left many of us feeling, well, stupid in the memory department. The reams of addresses, dates and numbers that people once routinely rattled off have become mental mysteries for those of us who rely on electronic directories, pop-up reminders, speed dialing and global positioning satellites to get what we need to know or where we need to go.

Experts say it's unlikely such gadgets actually are harming our capacity to remember. But when it comes to memory, there's little doubt that it's a case of "use it or lose it."

"It's the same as physical fitness. We know we have to get into the gym, but how many are in the gyms?. . . . Memory is the exact same process: Are you willing to do the work?" said Tony Dottino, a management consultant who founded the USA Memory Championship 11 years ago to "showcase people who exercise their minds." The next championship competition is scheduled for March 8 in New York.

For the nearly 80 million baby boomers already concerned about Alzheimer's and dementia, the threat of memory loss is no small issue. It's not only become the target of promising research and medications but the basis for a growing number of businesses, products and services.

Type "memory" into the search line on Amazon and a library's worth of book titles blooms on the screen. Do the same thing on Google and discover an expanding array of "memory aids," ranging from "brain games" to dietary supplements.

This spring, Westin Hotels & Resorts plans to introduce Brain+Body Fitness, a program incorporating a series of custom mind and body exercises that will be distributed to guests at check-in. In addition, some properties in the chain will offer "brain teasers" on the coasters provided with the in-room coffee service and Sudoku games for poolside loungers.

"It's not just Westin. There are many companies that are thinking about this in many different ways," said Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA's Semel Institute, who designed the mental exercises for Westin.

"Memory, in a way, is a low-hanging fruit, and people notice the changes. At least half of people, by the time they reach their 40s and 50s, notice cognitive decline," said Small, who is launching a one-day Brain Boot Camp at the UCLA Memory and Aging Center.

Asked about the effectiveness of such programs on sharpening memory, Small chuckled.

"We can fix your brain in a few hours. I'm laughing, but we really can," he said. "The evidence becomes more and more compelling that we can do something about it. The challenge is to get people to do it."

Small's program, which runs about $500 for the six-hour version and about $250 for a three-hour boot camp "lite," first assesses campers' memory, stress and fitness levels. Then it teaches them basic memory techniques and introduces a "healthy brain diet" including fish, antioxidant-rich colorful vegetables and fruits, and wine in moderation.

Because stress impedes memory, the program demonstrates relaxation exercises to improve mental focus. It also provides a daily lifestyle plan, including physical conditioning, to maintain brain health over time.

The object is to minimize the symptoms of normal age-associated memory impairment and, perhaps, lower the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, Small said.

Because people are living longer and often remain active for many years after retirement, there is a greater incentive to keep the brain healthy, said Stephen Salloway, director of the Memory and Aging Program at Rhode Island's Butler Hospital and professor of clinical neurosciences at Brown University's Alpert Medical School.

Nonetheless, nearly all people will experience some memory loss as they age. The question is how to identify the point where normal loss becomes something more serious.

People who think they have serious memory problems generally don't, because "people who have a more serious memory problem tend to be less aware of it," Salloway said.

There are other telltale signs, he said. People should be examined if they can't remember a word or name and it doesn't come to them later. Or if they forget not just the detail of an event but the event itself. Or if they no longer can multitask, such as driving a car while listening to the radio or carrying on a conversation.

"All of these are signs that there is the beginning of a memory disorder," said Salloway, who believes too few primary-care physicians routinely question older patients about memory problems at annual physicals. Some problems may be traced to medication or depression, which can be treated.

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