Do jumping jacks. Wear your watch upside-down. Read political commentary from the opposing side. Write haiku. You might or might not ward off dementia, but at least you’ll remember the name of your boss’s spouse at the holiday party.
In her book, 30 Days to Total Brain Health (Memory Arts), which includes those tips and more, Cynthia R. Green sets out to puncture what she sees as some widely held misconceptions about brain health. One is that it becomes relevant only when dealing with degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. In fact, she asserts, brains can be constantly strengthened (like triceps) and protected (like the heart).
“We think about brain health as something we only deal with when we’re older,” Green says, “but in fact it starts in utero.”
Another misconception, she says, is that the path to brain health runs only through crossword puzzles and brainteasers. “What’s clear from the science is that’s really not the case,” she says. “I work to educate people that it’s really a whole-health approach to brain health. You have to do something in all these areas—mind, body and spirit—to keep your mind sharp and to stay vital.”
Green, 51, a Montclair mother of three, is a psychologist and assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where she first studied Alzheimer’s disease. That inspired her to pursue memory research. She went on to become founding director of the Memory Enhancement Program at Mount Sinai in 1996 and launched Memory Arts LLC in Montclair in 2000—“an interesting journey,” as she calls it.
Her Total Brain Health (TBH) program seeks to arm people of all ages with strategies for improving memory and brain power. It calls for a combination of exercise, nutrition, meditation and mental challenges. She has widely spread her gospel through her website (totalbrainhealth.com), books, and media coverage, from Good Morning America to NPR to Newsweek.
“I like to think of it as a really empowering health message, because people are nervous about losing their memory and about really understanding what they can do to take care of their brain,” Green says. “A lot of information is both very simple and also overlaps a lot with a lot of the other health messages we get.”
TBH first looks at how well a person focuses mentally, thinks flexibly and makes judgments. This identifies many of the issues aging adults often face, like remembering names, which Green says is the top memory complaint. Second, TBH aims to reduce risk of serious memory impairment, which can result from degenerative disease or something sudden, such as stroke or head injury. This is particularly timely, as Baby Boomers are reaching the age where brain disease is more prevalent, and partly because stroke is the leading cause of adult disability. Meanwhile the plight of returning war veterans and athletes in high-collision sports have put traumatic brain injury in the spotlight.
TBH breaks down brain health into three dimensions, all backed, Green says, by scientific research. Body focuses on exercise, diet, sleep and supplements. Mind involves developing passions, engaging intellectually and testing memory, attention and brain speed. (Wearing your watch upside-down, for example, is known as a neurobic activity because it forces your brain to think outside its comfort zone.) Spirit covers overall well-being and includes practices such as meditation, yoga and tai chi, as well as social engagement.
In the age of Facebook and texting, social engagement is complicated. Green says online networks have their place, but face-to-face time is vital. “When you’re with someone in conversation, you have to stay focused, you have to think quickly and flexibly enough to stay up with the conversation,” she says. “All those are intellectual skills that we need to keep in shape as we grow older, and a benefit you don’t get through Facebook.”
Today’s world bombards us with too much information. “I joke that it’s not a ‘forgetting’ problem, it’s a ‘getting’ problem,” Green says. “We’re really distracted, and our lifestyle is creating an inability to stay focused.” That’s why, she says, meditative practice is so important. “We need to retrain ourselves to hold focus.”
Dr. Marvin Ruderman, a West Caldwell neurologist, sees some value in Green’s approach. “It’s good to be active mentally, it’s good for your overall well being,” he says. “In reducing heart disease and diabetes, you’re also reducing the chance of a stroke, which is related to brain health. If you’re helping prevent depression or deal with anxiety, that’s great.” However, says Ruderman, degenerative brain disease is another story. “The biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age and family history, and I don’t think this approach will prevent that.”
Green acknowledges this, saying the scientific findings mainly show correlations, not cause and effect. “It doesn’t mean if you exercise all the time, you won’t develop dementia,” she says. “But people who do exercise regularly have an associated reduced risk.”
Ruderman is skeptical. “If you have a degenerative disease, I don’t think it’s going to help much,” he says. “Right now there’s not a scientifically proven way of preventing that, so I think it’s wishful thinking. There will be treatment eventually, but it will be something much more powerful than being active or getting anything from a health-food store.”
Still, TBH is gaining adherents. Joan Beloff, director of community and senior outreach at Chilton Memorial in Pompton Plains, has held two Total Brain Health Fairs with Green and co-authored a book, Through the Seasons, with her. “Brain health is a key component in quality of life for older adults,” Beloff says. “A lot of people fear as they get older that they’re developing cognitive problems, and so they’re learning ways to keep their brain active. Meanwhile, they’re learning about exercise and eating well, and all of this plays into diabetes, obesity, and staving off other chronic diseases.”
Green may be a memory expert, but she admits even she has occasional lapses. “I can be just as forgetful as everyone else—just ask my kids,” she says. “They are always teasing me when I forget to give them a note or something that they told me. I guess the main difference is that I can usually figure out why I forgot something.”
She recalls once locking herself out of her office at Mount Sinai. “The security guard who came by to let me in—an older, distinguished-looking gentleman—looked at my information on the office door and said, ‘So, you’re the memory doc?’”
But she is happy to report that she no longer forgets where she parked her car in large lots. It’s her favorite memory improvement.
Green says she’s committed to teaching others because the techniques are not complicated or difficult to understand. “It is a matter of making the connection between the choices that we make every day and how well we function at work, how sharp we stay, and our brain staying vital as we grow older.”
She advises parents of young children to model better brain-health habits: institute a family game night, teach organizational skills at an early age, wear bike helmets when riding. Her role model in brain health is her nearly 100-year-old grandmother—who stays physically active and socially engaged, and has an ability to “let things go” rather than harbor stress.
For those not quite that long in the tooth, Green cites a study showing that improving fitness in middle age has long-term health benefits for the brain. “It’s never too late,” she says.
So start doing those jumping jacks.
Jessica Kitchin, a former associate editor at New Jersey Monthly, is president of the Lake Hopatcong Foundation.