Imagine a world of hospitals but no health clubs, where doctors spring into action if you’re sick or disabled but can do little more than shrug their shoulders if you ask for advice on how to stay well. In the fitness-crazed United States, this may sound absurd. But only a decade ago, Cynthia Green, Ph.D., faced a similar dilemma. At the time, she was working as a clinical psychologist for the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Some of the people entering the center with ailing memories were ultimately diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Green and her colleagues could then educate them about the illness, provide medical care, and perhaps invite them to participate in medical research. As for the people who had noticed memory changes but did not have any diagnosed illness, the options were limited. Even after being assured that it’s totally normal for memory slips to occur more often with aging, Green recalls, “they were still unnerved, but we didn’t have anything else to offer them.”
That has changed, in large part because of Green’s work. She is now a noted advocate of a concept she calls “memory fitness.” As detailed in her book, Total Memory Workout: 8 Easy Steps To Maximum Memory Fitness, Green argues that memory should be seen as another aspect of our overall health. As such, achieving maximum memory fitness involves attending to factors such as exercise (physical and mental), nutrition, stress reduction, alcohol consumption, and sleep habits. “You have to address your memory as a health issue, not as something you can quickly fix by one technique,” Green explains. “It’s important to look at all the different aspects of memory and all the different things that impact memory performance.”
The roots of Green’s ideas about memory fitness trace to a study conducted in the mid-1990s to see if formal memory training could benefit healthy older adults. The training was set up as a nine-week course. Enrollees, all over 60, met once per week for 90 minutes at one of five different medical centers and universities, including Mount Sinai. They learned how human memory works and what can impair it. They learned specific techniques and strategies for remembering names, faces, phone numbers, and shopping lists. Participants were given homework assignments every week to practice the techniques and were encouraged to discuss their specific memory problems.
Six months after completing the course, the participants showed modest improvements in their ability to remember words from short lists. Practice didn’t make memories perfect, but it did appear to make them better. Perhaps more important, people who completed the course felt more confident in their memory skills and less worried overall about their occasional memory slips. This suggested that comprehensive memory training offered concrete benefits. In 1996, Green founded Mount Sinai’s Memory Enhancement Program—the equivalent of a memory fitness center.
Taking It On The Road
The Memory Enhancement Program is still in business, but Green left in 2000 to promote memory fitness outside of the medical setting. She even teaches it online via the Barnes and Noble University website. “It can have up to 1000 people enrolled for a four-week session,” she explains. “I’ve had people take the course from Sri Lanka, from Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Europe.” New lessons are posted weekly, and then the students interact with Green and each other via an electronic message board.
Green’s company, Memory Arts, LLC, offers training to a wide variety of audiences. The format can be anything from 2-hour “lunch and learn” talk to all-day seminars. She frequently works with corporate groups, who have different concerns than those of the retired “worried well” that she encountered at Mount Sinai. “They are younger people who are much more concerned about enhancing their memory performance to improve their on the job performance.”
Today, Green is far from the only person in the memory improvement business. A number of companies sell software that promises to sharpen mental skills with special games and tasks. More and more authors are competing with Green for the growing population of aging brains. To cite just one example, neurobiologist Lawrence Katz, Ph.D., promotes a concept often called “neurobics” in his book, Keep Your Brain Alive. He offers 83 different exercises that a person can practice daily to flex mental musculature
For example: brushing your teeth with your left hand if you are right-handed, and vice versa.
No one can say for certain which of the myriad neurobics programs and techniques now on the market truly keep the mind and memory sharp, but they have a sound scientific basis. Many studies have shown that mentally active people generally preserve their skills better and longer than cognitive couch potatoes. For this reason, Green is reluctant to dismiss the neurobics products being hawked on the Internet and elsewhere. “The point is not to parse out what is singly the best, but to offer people a variety of options,” Green says. “There are many different ways to get at the same problem.” She adds that given the choice between recommending neurobics products or the multitude of alleged brain-boosting dietary supplements on the market, “I would have a lot more reservations about supplements. It’s snake oil.”
Integrated Memory Health
Despite the rise and proliferation of the neurobics and memory improvement industry in recent years, Green still occupies a unique niche: the approach developed at Mount Sinai that places memory in the wider context of healthy aging. For example, consider the relationship between sleep and memory. Research has shown that lack of restorative sleep can have a drastic impact on memory. And older people, who often complain of memory lapses, also have a high incidence of insomnia. “Yet people don’t always think about the fact that they are having trouble remembering because they are not getting enough sleep.”
Green’s work emphasizes that memory fitness, just like physical fitness, is not something that is just achieved, but must also be maintained through practice. Keep that in mind if you ever run across an advertisement for a supplement, computer program, or book that promises “dramatic” improvements in memory and mental sharpness in just a few days or weeks.
- "Total Memory Workout: 8 Easy Steps To Maximum Memory Fitness," by Cynthia R. Green. (Bantam: 2001. 256 pages, paperback.)
- "Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises,"” by Lawrence Katz, Manning Rubin, and David Suter. (Workman Publishing Company: 1999. 160 pages, paperback.)
Cynthia R. Green’s company, Memory Arts, LLC: www.memoryarts.com Email: [email protected]
To enroll in Cynthia R. Greens FREE “Total Memory Workout” course at Barnes & Noble University, see the Barnes & Noble website: