Several years ago, the Marist Institute for Public Opinion surveyed Americans about diseases they feared most. Topping the list was not a major life-threatening disease such as cancer or stroke or heart disease. It was Alzheimer's. What terrified people more than death was the prospect of losing memories of life and loved ones.


Two-thirds of Americans surveyed said they had a personal experience with someone with Alzheimer's disease or a serious problem with memory loss. Most respondents said they felt unprepared to care for a loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer's, or to care for themselves, should the brain disease strike them. They dreaded becoming a burden.

The good news is they do not have to let that happen. There are steps we all can take to protect our memories and strengthen our brain power.

Many of the patients I see who have concerns about memory do not actually suffer dementia. Often, they have a family history of Alzheimer's and wish to understand how they can avoid it. Others undergo memory testing and are found to have mild memory loss – also known as mild cognitive impairment, or MCI.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, MCI causes memory changes often related to concentration, attention or mental quickness. These are serious enough to be noticed by people experiencing them or to be noticed by family or friends, but the changes are not severe enough to affect daily life, and MCI does not meet diagnostic guidelines for dementia.

Still, there's plenty to worry about. People with mild cognitive impairment have an increased risk of eventually developing Alzheimer's or another type of dementia. It is heartening to know that not all people with MCI get worse, and some eventually get better.

How? They work at it. They nourish their brain health.

Last year, the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic launched its Brain Health and Wellness program to begin to address the fears of an aging nation. Designed by Dr. Roxanne Sukol in collaboration with the Neurological Institute at Cleveland Clinic, the program helps people protect their memory and thinking skills and recharge their cognitive abilities. It's targeted at patients with MCI and people diagnosed with normal memory but who have concerns about future memory loss – perhaps due to family history or another health issue.

Common chronic diseases that can affect memory – the very ones I see every day in clinic – include menopause, Parkinson's disease, depression and anxiety, diabetes, sleep apnea, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis and alcoholism. But fear not, as there are steps you can take to protect and sharpen your mind.

Research shows that a person can build memory and brain power in three simple ways:

Through deeply engaging and meaningful activities
With physical activity that enhances the flow of nutrients and oxygen
By learning new skills that require intense focus and concentration
Our Brain Health and Wellness team includes experts in brain health, nutrition, exercise physiology, yoga, meditation and occupational therapy. They meet patients in a group setting, what we call a shared medical appointment. In six sessions spanning 10 weeks, experts introduce memorization tools, mind-stretching games and special activities designed to engage multiple brain domains.

We also introduce nutrition education, so students can know differences between real and whole foods versus processed foods and manufactured calories.

Relaxation training allows them to discover how imagery, meditation and mindfulness all help reduce stress levels and protect brain function.

Not to be forgotten is physical activity. We focus on interval training, balance and posture while simply increasing opportunities to move.

In the spring of 2012, my grandmother moved back to Ohio from Florida to be closer to family. Her second husband had passed away, and my dad thought she would be better served – from a health and social perspective – if she were surrounded by loved ones. My grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's dementia and the disease was taking its toll on her health and her quality of life.

We moved her into an assisted living facility, and I would try and visit with her weekly. With each passing week, her memory faded until her ability to recognize me disappeared.

After only four months in Cleveland, my grandmother passed away peacefully, surrounded by family and her caregivers. As difficult as it was to watch her mind and body slip away, I still felt a sense of empowerment.

I knew I was not fated to follow her path. Awaiting me were the techniques to preserve and enhance my own memory.

Until next time, be well.

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