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Building 'brain fitness' possible at any age

Published October 30. 2010 09:00AM

It's time for "Dancing with the Stars," my favorite TV show.

I sit with the television remote control in my hand, punching in the channel. Nothing happens. No matter how many times I try, the TV won't respond.

After a little bit of frustration, I see what the problem is. I'm trying to use the mobile phone to control the TV.

"Oh, Lord, is this the start of Alzheimer's disease?" I ask myself. When I see that the remote control and telephone are next to each other on the stand, I realize it's just an easy mistake.

But after a certain age, whenever we can't remember where we put something, or when we can't think of a name or word, we think about that dreaded disease.

I know I'm like that. Sometimes, when I can't think of the name of someone I know especially well, I worry I'm about to get hit with Alzheimer's disease.

Some of my friends are the same way. We keep reassuring each other, but we worry when we find our memory slipping.

"Studies show people are more afraid of Alzheimer's disease than of death," says psychiatrist Alex Crandall.

As head of a Florida based Brain Training Institute, Dr. Crandall is a popular local speaker.

With a combination of humor and information, he can hold the attention of an audience for hours. When I went to one of his recent seminars, he had his audience laughing at his injected humor while talking about the serious subject of maintaining memory.

But there was a palpable change in the audience when he got on the subject of Alzheimer's disease. People stopped sipping on soda. The room grew so still it was as if they stopped breathing.

Memory loss is a captivating subject, especially for those at an age where it is starting to hit home.

Dr. Crandall's message could be boiled down to this: Don't worry. There is plenty you can do to keep your brain healthy.

He calls it brain fitness and says individuals can control how they age, both mentally and physically.

"I cannot over emphasize the importance of brain fitness," he says. "It can influence how long we live and how well we live."

Even those experiencing dementia can roll back their "brain age" ten years," he claims, citing research to prove his point. .

"Life long learning is the key to brain fitness," said Dr. Crandall. "We need to keep learning new things. Learn new skills, a new game, or simply a new way of doing familiar things. Reading mystery novels and trying to figure out 'who done it' also helps."

Although there are expensive computer programs with games that build brain fitness, Dr. Crandall says we don't need specialized software for mental exercises. "Playing solitaire, chess or learning a new card game are mental exercises," he says.

I play memory board games with Sophie, my ten-year-old grand daughter. She always wins.

"Don't you remember you just played that card?" she'll say. No, I don't remember.

Dr. Crandall also encourages people to do balance exercises and to play ping pong or other games that build eye-hand coordination. I questioned what hand-eye coordination had to do with brain fitness.

"It's another area of the brain we can work to improve," he says. He cited research that showed improving balance and eye-hand coordination cuts our chance of falling in half.

Since I'm more afraid of getting Alzheimer's than I am of swimming with alligators, I listened to the psychiatrist with rapt attention and scheduled a follow-up interview to explore the subject of brain fitness in more depth.

What I learned through several hours of note taking is the burgeoning field of brain fitness is vast and complicated and can't be reduced to one seminar or a newspaper column.

"Decades ago, people were just getting into physical exercise to keep their bodies healthy. Ten years from now, everyone will be aware of brain fitness and will be doing brain exercises," he predicts.

Indeed, the field of brain science is burgeoning. I'm starting to see ads advertising "brain scientists," something I never noticed before.

When I get together with my friends, we often talk about forgetting names. That's easy to remedy, according to Dr. Crandall.

"When you meet someone new, remember their name by creating new connections in your brain through association. Find something about the person's name, voice or physical appearance that connects with what you already know," he says.

Specifically, find a way to repeat the person's name within 30 seconds of hearing it.

"Then, there is a window of two hours for our working memory to retain something. Repeat the name or information you want to remember within two hours and you will create a permanent connection in your long term memory," he said.

When my friends and I take dance lessons, we know the steps while we are in class. The next day, we can't remember what we learned. Dr. Crandall says it's because we didn't practice the steps within two hours of learning them.

When people understand how the brain is designed, they can learn skills that improve every area of life, he says.

I've been telling my friends about the memory enhancing techniques.

"What's the name of the psychiatrist?" asked one friend.

"Err, I forgot," I had to admit.

I think I need more of the memory seminar.

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