Seniors: Shining a spotlight on cognitive decline

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Seniors: Shining a spotlight on cognitive decline
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By Jessica Fredericksen

Amidst COVID-19, cancer and cardiac disease, few people recognize one of the other major public health issues – cognitive decline. When people think about “being healthy,” they rarely ask, “How’s your brain health?” or “What brain exercises did you do today?”

According to the Mayo Clinic, Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) “is the stage between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more serious decline of dementia. It’s characterized by problems with memory, language, thinking or judgment.” Common signs of MCI include repeating yourself often, frequently forgetting where you put something or frequently missing appointments or events.

Brain health has taken a hit during the pandemic, especially for older adults who have been isolated. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia-related deaths have increased 16% during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The data suggests it is time to give brain health its due, bring it out from behind the shadows and help older adults rebound well from the effects of the pandemic. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, approximately 15% to 20% of adults age 65 and older have MCI.

Although there is currently no medical cure for MCI or dementia, there are things individuals can do to improve their brain health. According to the National Institute on Aging, things like spending time with friends, staying involved in activities that strengthen the mind and body and volunteering are techniques that can help individuals with MCI strengthen and improve their memory.

StrongerMemory, a curriculum-based program that Goodwin House Inc. makes available at no cost on its website, www.goodwinhouse.org/stronger-memory/, incorporates many of these techniques to help fight cognitive decline. StrongerMemory was originally created by Goodwin House CEO Rob Liebreich and his family when his mother, Wendy, started experiencing signs of MCI in 2011. Rob researched brain health exercises that could help his mother, drawing on brain science findings and insights from SAIDO Learning, an intervention geared toward late-stage dementia. The result is today’s StrongerMemory program.

In StrongerMemory, participants spend 20 to 30 minutes a day reading out loud, doing simple math problems quickly and writing or journaling by hand. Many individuals also choose to participate in StrongerMemory weekly check-ins where they can connect with other individuals struggling with memory loss and provide encouragement. The weekly check-ins provide a space to come together and talk with others who are experiencing the same challenges and are also motivated to take action to better their brain health. This sense of community serves to motivate individuals and provides the added benefit of socialization and connectedness, which have become rare during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The three exercises that make up the StrongerMemory curriculum all activate the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The prefrontal cortex helps with memory retrieval, so exercising this part of the brain activates the neurons and brain connections needed to improve memory retrieval and recall.

Many individuals struggling with their memory feel discouraged or fearful of what is to come if their memory continues to decline. Programs like StrongerMemory empower individuals to take control of their own brain health.

In addition to StrongerMemory, there are a variety of brain health resources readily available. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America offers a free memory screening program virtually at www.alzfdn.org. The Family Caregiver Alliance also has information on coping with MCI on its website: www.caregiver.org/resource/mild-cognitive-impairment-mci/.

For individuals who are extremely concerned about possible memory loss, the best option is to talk with your physician. You can also explore intensive programs like occupational memory therapy or the Inova Memory Disorders Program, which helps assess and provide support for those with a dementia diagnosis.

Another great resource is the Dementia Friendly America initiative. Dementia Friendly America strives to provide education to individuals and communities about how to be dementia-aware and create environments that take into account the challenges individuals with MCI or dementia are facing. There are many local Dementia Friendly America chapters in northern Virginia, including Dementia Friendly Alexandria.

As we start to move forward from the pandemic, awareness of brain health is increasing. Although there is no cure for dementia or cognitive decline, there is hope on the horizon. Individuals can be empowered to take initiative for better brain health by using tools like StrongerMemory. Everyone is capable of improving their brain health by just picking up a pen to write, completing easy math problems or reading out loud. Join in the movement to keep our brains healthy.

The writer is a certified dementia practitioner who currently serves as the brain health program manager for Goodwin House Incorporated.

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