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Mental workout strives to keep brain fit

Classes an exercise in retaining memories for the forgetful

By Stephanie Smith
CNN Medical Unit

Dr. Gary Small says memory training can be done at any age.
Dr. Gary Small says memory training can be done at any age.

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Memory training

(CNN) -- Joe Kasoff calls himself a real-life, absent-minded professor.

"I've always been a little bit ditzy, but in particular the last few years I've had an alarming shortage of memory," said Kasoff, a 45-year-old college professor in Southern California.

"Many people have recounted in vivid detail entire conversations, meaningful interactions they've had with me, and I just completely draw a blank."

Memory problems have dogged him for years, he said, but lately the problems are more serious.

"The more recent problems haven't been the usual where-did-I-put-my-keys problems," Kasoff said. "But more like huge stretches of months that I have no recollection of."

To stem his memory loss and the embarrassing moments that inevitably occur in their wake, Kasoff decided to attend a course in "memory training" at UCLA's Center on Aging in Los Angeles, California.

The theory behind the course is similar to physical fitness, but instead of exercising muscles, students "work out" their brains to help stave off memory loss.

"The idea is use it or lose it, work out your brain cells so they can stay active and healthy," said Dr. Gary Small of UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute.

His book, "The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young," lays the foundation for the memory courses, which are attended by people as young as 36 and as old as 92. Small said that memory training can be done at any age.

"Research has shown that some simple memory training classes can go a long way in improving memory almost immediately and actually having sustained effects for several years," Small said.

Those embarrassing memory lapses

Forgetting the name of that person you just passed in the hallway or matching a name with a face are the two biggest memory issues people have, according to Small.

"I have a standard opening gambit of, 'Hi, I'm Beth. What was your name again?,' " said Beth Gulas, 55, a Los Angeles management consultant. "I forget things that I tell people ... 'Oh, did I tell you this already? Stop me if I did.' "

Gulas, who attends the UCLA course, said her memory lapses frequently make her the butt of jokes.

"It's getting a little tedious," Gulas said. "I'm concerned about what I am going to be like in my 70s and 80s, and my family makes so much fun of me. ... I want to put that to rest."

Strategies to help remember

The core of "The Memory Bible" and the courses boils down to three words -- look, snap, connect. Small said that these words are the keys to retaining information and exercising the brain.

• Look: Actively focus on what you want to remember.

• Snap: Create a mental snapshot of the scene to process it visually.

• Connect: Connect those visuals to your life, creating an emotional attachment that's harder to forget.

"Let's say I park in Lot 3B in the parking lot," Small said. "I might see my car with three large bumble bees hovering over it. I got stung by a bee when I was a kid so it has an emotional charge, and it's easier to remember."

Other ways to preserve memory, according to the book, include reducing stress, eating a healthy diet with foods rich in anti-oxidants such as broccoli, strawberries and blueberries, and regular exercise.

The research behind the memory training concept is scarce, but the field is growing.

Small noted that recent studies indicate that older adults who spent more time doing leisure activities that involve mental effort had a lower rate of getting Alzheimer's disease than those who didn't.

"We all have our natural memory techniques," Small said. "All we're doing is helping people fine-tune the ones they have and teaching them new ones to improve their life and improve their memory and possibly even stave off future memory loss."

During the class, Kasoff said the memory training techniques were working for him, but the truest test is whether they'll help in the real world.

"I'll try it, and hopefully in a few days I'll know where my socks are," he said.

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