03/24/2013 02:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Real Memory Challenge

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

One of my favorite moments in Joshua Foer's entertaining chronicle Moonwalking with Einstein is when Mr. Foer, just like the rest of us, forgets. Fresh from his victory at the USA Memory Championships, he drives into New York City for dinner with friends, only to return to his parents' suburban home by train, completely blanking out that he had left his car behind.

After all, if the winner of the elusive memory championship can't remember, how can we?

These are interesting times in the field of memory and brain fitness. Brain health is suddenly the latest wellness craze. It seems that everyone -- or at least everyone over 40 -- wants to know what to do about those vaguely troubling experiences of forgetting a name, a password or just a word. Senior moments may have given way to Google moments, but even the technical advantage of having the forgotten information at our fingertips can't stave off that niggling fear that perhaps something is wrong with our minds. There's even a brain fitness industry (who knew?), complete with virtual summits and market reports, not to mention a 2009 estimated $295-million world market.

Juxtaposed to our fascination with boosting memory performance is the continued challenge of ever increasing rates of dementia. The Alzheimer's Association's recently released "2013 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures" reports that by 2025, 7.1 million of us will suffer from the illness. Despite the dedicated persistence of some of the best medical minds in the world, research has yet to make significant strides in treating, let alone eradicating, these diseases. Recent efforts to enhance early detection and reframe the diagnostic criteria for dementia are the result of progress in the right direction, but we still face increasing rates of the disease in the near future, along with the ever-increasing costs of care.

While the science behind brain health continues to grow, it supports solid medical advice that has become so common it is seen as mundane. Regular exercise, a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight, among other healthy lifestyle choices, appear to make a significant difference in lowering our dementia risk. While a recent National Institutes of Health Consensus Conference looking at what we can do to prevent Alzheimer's disease and cognitive decline did not reach any substantive conclusions for interventions, this seems to reflect the youth of the field rather than a weakness of findings. While studies still need to be larger and replicated, there is certainly solid advice to be had that the same guidelines for reducing our cardiac risk are brain smart choices as well.

So where will this burst of attention will take us? Will the same folks who are fascinated by super memory heroes start on their own quest to rev up their recall, keeping their keys in better check and getting names the first time around? More importantly, in an age when lifestyle related diseases such as obesity and diabetes are on the rise despite all we know about reducing their occurrence, can we hope that fear of losing our memories will be what finally motivates us to stop snacking and get moving?

We live at a time where gratification often can come in an instant, and have come to expect immediate results. When it comes to brain health, we just need to remember to be patient. -- Cynthia R. Green, Ph. D.

As someone on the "front lines" of the brain health field, I am cautiously optimistic that we can harness this current fascination with memory and get folks focused on how well they take care of their brains. First we need to act on the advice we are getting on brain health. Many factors across the wellness spectrum have been associated with improved brain health. However, not all of them work equally, nor do they necessarily benefit all aspects of our brain's health. For example, there is little to suggest that the activities that boost everyday performance, such as learning a strategy to better remember a name, have any impact at all on our risk for a serious memory disorder down the road. Likewise, staying intellectually engaged has been associated in several studies with a lower risk for dementia, but has never been correlated with improving everyday memory performance. These findings strongly suggest that if we are seriously committed to our brain's health we need to practice healthy activities across a wide range of physical, intellectual and even emotional well-being.

As they enter their "third age," baby boomers have an increased life span, better health and enriched opportunities over previous generations. This generation and those following will also reap the rewards of the emerging science, practical advice and growing commercial interest in brain health. Perhaps the best comparison is to the concept of physical fitness. Although it may be hard to believe, it was not that long ago that we didn't think much about being physically fit. Yet over the past 50 years or so, physical fitness has become ubiquitous to our American way of life. We live at a time where gratification often can come in an instant, and have come to expect immediate results. When it comes to brain health, we just need to remember to be patient.

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