"Total Memory Workout"

Can exercise help you remember where you put your keys?


Steve Burgess
September 16, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

No, you can't skip this one. This article is about memory. Maybe with some
other health story you might be able to pass right on by -- and then if you
ever did come down with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis you could always dig
it up from the archives. (By the way, did you know ALS is called Lou Gehrig's
disease, and Gehrig actually got it? Talk about your unlucky coincidences.)

Now, though, the subject is memory, and you know that's you. You're losing
it. Halfway to senility -- can't even remember what you were about to say.
Very soon now you'll be warehoused in a clean, well-lit facility, watching
"The Teletubbies" all day and not getting the jokes.

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Unless, of course, you get help. Dr. Cynthia R. Green, director of the
Memory Enhancement Program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has come to your rescue. Her new book, "Total Memory Workout: 8 Easy Steps to Maximum Memory Fitness" (Bantam Books), promises to reverse the corruption of your personal data files. At the very least, Green's book may reassure you that you aren't really coming down with Alzheimer's.

Green's book contains various tips, useful exercises and general advice
for improving memory fitness. You'll notice the beneficial effects almost
immediately as Green's prose style brings back vivid memories of fifth grade. Chapters are followed by quizzes, with questions of the "True or
False: Safety is nobody's business" variety. (From the Step 1 Quiz: "True
or False: Practicing better memory habits will help me maximize my memory
fitness." Answer later!)

Do the exercises in the "Total Memory Workout" and very soon you'll find
that having a better memory is not worth the trouble. For example, the
Rhyme Technique, described on page 140: "Many people like to help
themselves remember information by making up a rhyme for it," Green writes. A grocery list follows: chicken, chicken broth, wild rice, dried apples
walnuts, salt, pepper -- and then a sample rhyme linking them all together:

"Oh, the chicken swam into the broth
The rice brewed wildly
The apples dried on walnut husks
On the salt and pepper sea."

"If you are musically inclined," Green enthuses, "you may even find you
like to give your rhymes a little tune. Maybe you'll uncover an unknown talent!"

Maybe you'll be arrested by store security. Your call. Personally, I would
recommend using this technique only if your shopping list reads:

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Blue

Blue

Blue suede shoes.

Improving your memory can be a complete, life-changing exercise. Step 2
centers on adjusting your routine to eliminate stress and maintain good
sleep habits. Step 3 recommends a healthy, well-balanced diet. (Question
from the Step 3 Quiz: "True or False -- Eating well is just one of the many
ways I can maximize my memory fitness." Answer later!)

The suggestion to eliminate stress sounds easier said than done, but recent
research does support the idea. Ron McKay and Heather Cameron, of the
National Institute of Neurology Disorders and Stroke at the NIH, have done
some studies on mice that suggest stress hormones regulate replacement of
neurons in the part of the brain that controls short-term memory. In other
words, relax and you might remember the name of the guy you just met at
that cocktail party.

Most of Green's advisories, like "relax" and "eat good food"
are just good common sense. Common common sense. Her advice on coffee?
It's OK to drink coffee, but don't drink too much coffee. Re: alcohol, Green
says you can drink a little alcohol, just don't drink too much alcohol.
Getting all goofed up on crystal meth -- Green doesn't say. Use your own best judgment.

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Green does deal with over-the-counter drugs in Step 2, listing some, like
antihistamines, that can affect your memory. And while the good doctor
tells many reassuring tales throughout the book of people who thought they
were losing it, only to discover they simply hadn't been paying attention,
Step 2 does in fact list medical conditions that actually could result in
memory loss. Hypochondriacs, then, may wish to skip to page 48, where they'll find enough ammunition to keep them happy for decades. Cancer, diabetes, lupus, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, toxic
exposure -- maybe you didn't simply misplace those keys. Maybe it's encephalitis.

And of course, it's never too soon to start obsessing about Alzheimer's.
According to Dr. Larry Squire, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at
UCSD and research scientist at San Diego's VA Hospital, Alzheimer's is "not
an uncommon disease. Ten percent of people between the ages of 65 and 85
will get it." But Squire, too, sounds a reassuring note for those who
keep losing their keys. "Memory does weaken as we age, so people often
worry that it's something more severe when in fact it isn't. If you forget
you have keys, that would be more serious."

Squire and Green agree that intellectual pursuits can help keep one's
marbles from leaking out of the bag. In Step 2 of "Total Memory Workout,"
Green suggests ways to stay mentally active. "Researchers have found that
adults who report engaging in mentally stimulating activities are less
likely to develop memory disorders and are more likely to age optimally,"
she writes. A list of "brain games" is provided:

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  • Do crossword puzzles
  • Play bridge
  • Play board games
  • Do jigsaw puzzles
  • With a large revolver, blow your brains all over the cards and board games
    and jigsaw puzzles.

That last one was mine. (True or False: To each his own.) But there's more
scary stuff in the "Total Memory Workout." "Still worried that old age will
bring you down?" asks Green rhetorically. "Consider these role models in
healthy, productive aging." Green's list starts well -- she names Paul Newman, Grandma Moses, John Glenn and Nelson Mandela, while successfully avoiding Ronald Reagan. But then it all goes terribly wrong with the inclusion of Strom Thurmond. George Bush is also cited as an example of graceful aging, and it's true enough that age is not a problem for the
ex-veep-and-prez-and-potential-future-First-Dad.

Bush was in his prime when he made statements like, "I have opinions of my own -- strong opinions -- but I don't always agree with them," and "I'm delighted that Barbara Bush is with me today, and I -- she got a good clean bill of health yesterday from Walter Reed Hospital, I might add, and then -- but I'm taking another look at our doctor. He told her it's OK to kiss the dog -- I mean -- no -- it's OK to kiss your husband, but don't kiss the dog. So I don't know exactly what that means." It means you're as sharp now as you ever were, Mr. President.

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Green's key point is that people often fail to pay attention at crucial
moments, then believe that their memories are failing because they can't
recall information they never took in to begin with. Squire concurs.
"If a person maintains good health and pays attention," he says, "they're
likely to experience improved memory." Prioritizing information is also
crucial. And as Green insists, there's no reason you can't have some
fun along the way. "Bored at a party?" Green asks in Step 7 -- Remembering the People You Meet. "Get everyone to play the Name Game. See how many ways you can come up with to remember each other's names. It's fun and, let's face it, it's a useful way to get to know each other."

Excellent idea. You'd definitely remember somebody's name if the two of you
were to get jiggy under the kitchen table.
And if someone else has a video
camera, the result will be a mnemonic device that could bring everyone hours of pleasure. Thanks, Dr. Green!


Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Steve Burgess

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