Mental Gymnastic Programs Appeal to Adults with Memory Concerns

By Paula E. Hartman-Stein, Ph.D.

Engaging in mental exercises for the purpose of increasing cognitive fitness is gaining popularity for Baby Boomers and their parents. The research is not definitive regarding the prevention of brain deterioration by rigorous mental exercise, but psychologists, neurologists, and other educators are designing cutting-edge programs for the public’s desire to stay mentally sharp.

Elkhonon Goldberg, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist in Manhattan, has offered programs since 1999 for patients who have been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. "I have been increasingly impressed by a growing body of relevant research literature, both animal studies on the positive effects of species-appropriate stimulation on the brain and more recently the human literature that demonstrates positive effects of structured cognitive stimulation on mental functions in aging," said Goldberg, who reviews this work in his new book, The Wisdom Paradox.

A private grant underwrites the foundation of Goldberg’s "mental gym" that offers computer-based cognitive exercises that the client can practice in his center two or more times a week under the direction of a private cognitive fitness trainer. Following a neuropsychological evaluation, the client follows an individualized protocol of brain workout exercises that focuses on verbal and visual memory, divided attention, language, or spatial and verbal problem-solving. In addition Goldberg and his staff hold discussions about cognitive changes to allay anxiety triggered by mental slippage and to increase a sense of empowerment.

"Our program is geared toward patients with mild cognitive impairment because this is where evidence is the strongest, the need is most obvious, and the likelihood of success is the greatest." He said that in principle, the programs will work for healthy older adults, but "my impetus has been to help those truly in need, rather than to offer the program as an amenity."

In Hartford, Conn., the non-profit New England Cognitive Center (NECC) offers programs for healthy older adults as well as those with early onset dementia. "People are becoming aware that fitness does not stop at the shoulders and neck," said the Director of the NECC, Patti Said, M.A., health educator. Their most requested program is a series of a four-, six-, or eight-session "memory tune-up" workshops consisting of psychoeducation and memory strategies provided in senior centers and other community agencies. According to Said, because some older adults feel uncomfortable around computers the NECC offers a series of 24 paper-and-pencil memory exercise sessions in addition to individualized computer based cognitive training.

Based on Goldberg’s model their newest program is for patients with early stage Alzheimer’s disease funded by a grant through the state of Connecticut. The data from this new program will be available in late 2005, according to Said.

Not all gerontological researchers approve of the cognitive fitness movement.

In an online publication from January 2005 found at www.plosmedicine.org, Margy Gatz, Ph.D., writes that mental activity programs may do more harm than good. "First, they may offer false hope. Second, individuals who do develop dementia might be blamed for their condition…as having brought it on themselves through failure to exercise their brains."

NECC director Said disagrees. "Just because I work out in a physical gym does not mean I will not die from a heart attack, but there is a chance I am also avoiding a heart attack and other health problems if I do regular physical exercise."

Founded over 15 years ago by Louise Loomis, Ed.D., as an educational center for learning problems in children, the NECC changed its focus four years ago to cognitive development for adults. "There is a growing demand from seniors so this has become our primary focus," according to Said, "We have become a bridge between research and application." The Center offers an academic conference once a year with leading neuroscientists presenting their research. For more information, go to www.cognitivecenter.org.

Goldberg has observed that some of his participants comes to his Manhattan based center for the social and companionship aspects it offers. "Usually a blend of cognitive and social interests developed, turning our clients, even the initially skeptical ones, into true devotees of the program," he writes in his book.

Another example of a cognitive-social program offered for older adults includes a national senior spelling bee sponsored through the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). The tenth national senior bee took place on June 18th in Cheyenne Wyom. Inspired by this idea, a mental health center in Kent, Ohio, has recently offered a series of community-based preparatory spelling classes for older adults prior to the first Northeast Ohio Senior Spelling Bee that met with great success, according to an administrator of Coleman Professional Services, Sandy Myers. Remarking about why she attends art classes, book clubs, and cognitively rigorous activities such as spelling bees, Carol Beck, Ph.D., of Kent, retired psychologist, remarked, "I don’t know if it staves off dementia, but it adds to quality of life."

Paula E. Hartman-Stein, Ph.D. is a geropsychologist at the Center for Healthy Aging in Kent, Ohio, and Director of Geriatric Psychology at Summa Health System in Akron. She teaches spelling to older adults as a cognitive exercise and can be reached through her website, www.centerforhealthyaging.com.