Health & Wellness

Boot camp for the brain! How this program might help stave off dementia

Just as we exercise and eat healthy to keep our bodies strong as we age, we may also need to give our brains workouts and good food to keep them fit.

At Cleveland Clinic, doctors have designed a program to do just that, a sort of boot camp for the brain.

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Called the “Brain Health and Wellness Program,” participants in the program learn strategies designed to “maximize brain health,” including dietary modifications, increased physical activity, cognitive exercises and relaxation methods.

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“I am completely passionate and riveted to preventive medicine,” said the program’s founder and director, Dr. Roxanne Sukol. “It doesn’t make any sense to me to chase problems when you can prevent trouble. I would really like it if I can teach my patients the skill set [so] they know how to make the choices that will prevent those problems in the first place.”

People in the program range in age from their 40s to 80s, according to Michael Milicia, an occupational therapist at the Cleveland Clinic.

The patients are often worried about their future, Sukol said, either because they have family members with dementia or they don't have children to take care of them.

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Some just want to see if they can get their brains back in shape.

Take 68-year-old Tony Fitzgerald. He was worried that a series of surgeries last year had cost him much of his cognitive ability. He believes the Cleveland Clinic program changed all that.

“This program is like cardio for the brain,” Fitzgerald said. “It doesn’t start off that the day after the first class you’re healed. It took, structurally, six sessions over three months to build that confidence up.”

A large part of the program involves exercises for the brain. Milicia showed TODAY's Willie Geist how to use a technique called “the memory palace.”

The idea is to consciously build associations so that you can develop better memory skills and give the parts of your brain that store information a regular workout. The exercise is called the memory palace because people by remember words better if they find a way to link them to locations and stories. Those places are their “palace,” often a home, that is associated with specific words.

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So, Milicia told Geist to think of the rooms he typically passes through when he comes home and then to link one word from a list of 10 to each room. Geist is also told to make up a little story about each word and room to solidify the link in his head.

The first thing on the list of words Geist is trying to memorize is "cotton ball," which he associates with pushing through his front door.

“The next word is pickle, which he puts in the hall of his home,” Milicia said. "The story to go with this is that after pushing the cotton ball through the doorway, he’s famished, so he picks up the pickle and eats it.”

When Geist wants to bring the list back, he only has to imagine himself walking through his apartment and as he thinks of each location, the word linked to it will pop into his head.

The technique was a success for Geist. “In the span of just a couple of minutes I had the list memorized forward and backward,” he said.

MORE: 5 ways to protect your memory for Alzheimer's Awareness Month

While the strategies may seem to make sense, most haven’t had studies to back them up, said Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

“There are some data to support claims regarding life style modifications slowing cognitive decline,” Petersen said, adding that the best evidence is for aerobic exercise.

“The Mediterranean diet is one element that has been shown to be probably helpful. The data are softer, but it does appear to be helpful. When you talk about cognitive exercises, or brain games, the data get a bit thin.”

That doesn’t mean that studies won’t eventually show that these methods help slow mental decline, Petersen said, just that they haven’t been proven to do so yet.

Still, Petersen said, none of the strategies are going to cause harm and they might turn out to help.

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