Taking my mind to the gym

The merits of exercising your brain, without towels or shvitz.

seniors 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
seniors 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I can't find my glasses. Again.Ready to leave the house, I can't remember where I put the damn things. Or who played that little guy in Casablanca (Peter Lorre, I remember minutes later). Or my accountant's first name (it's Ron, stupid!). Or what I did with the form that needs to be filled out that was just on my desk this morning. Am I losing it? At 53? Worried by too many stories about the early onset of Alzheimer's, I decide to do something about it, besides upping my Sudoku sessions. I decide to go to BrainSpa. Brain what? Fact is, I can't even remember how I first heard about the company - radio spot or newspaper item - which bills its three sites around Tel Aviv, with more coming in Jerusalem, as "institutes for cognitive development." The company's multicolored brochure features a head superimposed on the letters BS and some surf pounding a slab of rocks that we'll return to later. "You live a full and active life, but feel like your memory isn't as sharp as it was. Your concentration isn't either. You say it's your age. But it turns out there is something to do about it - BrainSpa!" it proclaims. Fears about "losing it" have spurred a growth industry in clubs, forums, newspaper articles and columns and other options for tackling memory loss and other cognitive decline. With a rapidly increasing older population, "there's gold in them thar hills," as Dr. A. Mark Clarfield, chief of geriatrics at Soroka Hospital and Sidonie Hecht professor of geriatrics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, explained recently, leading more private companies like BrainSpa to offer their services to the frequently forgetful. So there I was in the waiting room of the BrainSpa center in an unassuming Ramat Hahayal office building, the reassuring quiet already having an impact. New Age, baby, you could sense the New Age, from that same crashing surf picture on the wall to the green and blue crystal-like stones scattered on a table to the scent of myrtle burning in a little pot on Keren the secretary's desk. Relax, it all seemed to say. To most of us, however, figures about Alzheimer's in Israel and encounters we have with family or friends already stricken with that disease are anything but relaxing. According to Clarfield, worldwide between 5 percent and 10% of people older than 65 will be affected by some form of dementia, the most frequent cause being Alzheimer's disease. That means between 35,000 and 70,000 Israelis. However, in the "old-old" (85 plus) the numbers are more worrisome, with up to 40% suffering from dementia. Alzheimer's disease is responsible for about 60%-80% of dementia, according to Clarfield. That's reason enough to bring clients to BrainSpa. As manager Ronny Erez, a former head of Jerusalem's Israel Arts and Sciences Academy, explains, founder Dr. Isaac Herman, an international expert in health care insurance, "saw from the insurance point of view the growth of the percentage of people who were suffering from cognitive decline. He saw the cost of it and he had some knowledge of some new research that was saying there was something to do about it... not via medications, but by learning or training." Erez, who stresses BrainSpa's educational aspect, helped design its program, which has a US patent pending. "It's meant to be pleasant, even the way we built the place... We wanted a very calm atmosphere, with classical music playing in the background, a nice smell and soft lights... We called it BrainSpa because we had international aspirations from the beginning, and we thought it should be a name in English. We wanted spa because we wanted to say that the essence of the program is two elements - one is training and one is learning. "The idea is that in keeping your mind alive, it's not enough to do only training, like a gym. What do you do in a gym - you go and work out on the treadmill. But you don't go on it to learn how to walk - you know how to walk - but to improve your blood flow, your flexibility; you're improving something that's already there. The same thing for memory, concentration and attention, which are the things the program works on. These things you use all your life; it's a basic tool, like blood flow. "But when you decide to, for example, learn how to play squash, you create new neurological circles in your brain. You're learning something new, you're enlarging your scope. And my idea - and I tested it with specialists around the world and they agreed - is that if you don't want to lose, you have to gain some new territories…" BUT IT'S EXACTLY the gym parallel that resonates here, without the smell of the sneakers or the locker room, the sense of "a club" where everybody knows your name. "When you see that other people have problems similar to yours, when you're focused on these issues and you see those around you also concerned about them, you feel a sense of safety in numbers," says Edna Sa'ar, who at 57 is one of the younger clients. Indeed, Erez explains, "the social atmosphere is very important to us." We go on a tour. As we enter, the computer room's 17 stations are buzzing as a mix of couples and singles, ranging in age from 50 plus to late 70s, work the Mindfit55 program, developed by Cognifit Mind Fitness Solutions. ("You can't stop time, but you can delay its effects," says its Web site, stressing "brain power fitness.") The program offers a variety of puzzles, games and other challenges designed to keep sharp and improve various cognitive abilities. Upon joining BrainSpa, each individual is first given a cognitive evaluation. The Mindfit challenges are tailored individually for each client, the program progressing at his pace through the exercises. I can play too, and soon feel very retro facing a variation of Pac-Man in which I must erect barricades to keep red orbs from colliding. After a few trials, Erez has the program add another dimension: Four boxes appear around the maze, each flashing pictures. When any two - animals, flowers, etc. - match, I have to register this by pressing the space bar, while still keeping those orbs from crashing. That one's easy, but another where I must follow a slowly descending ball of color with the mouse has me quickly frustrated. A third also brings back computer games past, with me guiding a ball that changes colors to the appropriately colored side of a circle. But couldn't I just do similar games and exercises at home? "No, for the simple reason that all this can become routine," says Erez. Mindfit55, he adds, "touches all the cognitive needs: concentration, attention and memory. Reasoning, future memory - all these basic skills are touched in a very adequate way," and the program is constantly evaluated by the company. Moshe Ilan, 69, attending his fourth meeting with his wife, says: "I hope it'll improve my memory. There was a day where we left the house, drove a few blocks, then turned around and came back because we forgot our notebook for the class." He's worried because he's forgetting many things, like the names of his sister's grandchildren. Sergio Skolnik, attending with his wife, Eliana, says they "don't want to get to a point in a few years from now where we can't control ourselves," and uses what he learns to help others at an old-age home he visits. He cites the "discipline factor" in choosing BrainSpa over other options. "We have to be here once a week from hour X to hour Y... Doing exercises at home you can always get distracted." GAME TIME'S over, and now it's into the group room, featuring multimedia equipment and a round table the participants sit around. Our group mentor takes his spot at the front and we begin a guided imagery session, soothing music playing in the background. He has us imagine each breath we exhale is a different color. I mellow out, forget about my deadline, even. Now he's got us imagining we are holding a box between our legs. "Feel the box," he implores us, its edges, its shape. Then he tells us "an empty page" is inside. It's a letter, one we never got to write. We can take the opportunity now, or just lock away the page again. Moments later he brings us out of it. Someone's cellphone rings, and the leader reminds the group to turn them off. We go around the room, and it's clear not everyone's gotten something from this. "No box. No opening. Nothing," says one man. But others are moved by the session, remembering people they had meant to write. "I wrote to myself," says another proudly. The group gets advice on how to work on "feeling" the box at home. They talk about last session's discussion of Bialik, and what is real interaction, as the noise from kids at recess outside wafts into the room. It feels a little like a support group. They share what they remember from last time, and if they even do remember. They encourage each other. There's a pot of the smelly stuff on the table here, too, and yup - that crashing surf and rock pictures again. As the discussion shifts into more philosophic directions, Erez and I leave. Discussion groups about abstract questions, feelings and big ideas of life are an important part of the BrainSpa approach, he explains. Getting older, he says, means having more experience, but that's not always a good thing. "The problem is that when we have too much experience, we are not exercising our mind to encounter new situations, to analyze them in a fresh way and find new solutions." Issues like relative ethics are addressed to stimulate participants' minds, along with others designed to empower older people who might feel "I'm getting older, I'm not useful in society," as he puts it. "This is also a good reason for cognitive decline, because if I don't feel useful, I'm not stimulating my mind." Erez adds that "with age, we get less and less stimulating interactions," caught up in the weekly family dinners where everyone says the same thing and make the same bad jokes. "So at a certain age, we need this kind of interaction that is stimulating." They debate the value of trance music vs Bach vs Sinatra. One discussion put them in the hypothetical situation of being deprived of their freedom to drive properly by a motorist behind them flashing his lights and driving dangerously. Another had them receiving the trip of a lifetime, but without knowing from whom. Would they take it or not? There are also "creativity quizzes," like one in which a king offers his daughter's hand to whoever finishes last in a race. How do you finish last without standing still? Back in his office, there's more. We do psychomotoric exercises, with Erez first having me place my hands palms down on the table, then alternate one palm up one down, then one hand sideways one down, etc. I mess up a lot. Next we're up stretching our neck and asked to remember what we see in the furthest end of our field of vision. A repeat of the exercise has me expanding it. Finally, Erez asks me to move my eyeballs rapidly back and forth and up and down in their sockets. Great, but couldn't we just do this at home? Why come here?