The wait for test results. Preparing for a career change. That strange house creak in the middle of the night. The fear of the unknown – and the common feeling of helplessness that accompanies it – can be one of the greatest sources of human distress. For older adults, just the fear of impending cognitive decline can leave many feeling powerless to effect change.
“The majority of people I talk to, they’re afraid of losing their cognitive abilities as they get older. And this is something simple and easy that gives them some hope—gives them some of the power back.”
Jessica Fredericksen, MSW, CDP, is a social worker and brain health program manager at Goodwin House, a senior living organization in Virginia, and a recent presenter at On Aging 2022, the annual conference hosted by the American Society on Aging, held April 11-14. A big part of her role is implementing and spreading the word about StrongerMemory, a brain health curriculum that allows older adults to take a more active role in dementia prevention and treatment—and hopefully remove some of that fear.
“I think knowing more and more that there are things we can do gives people a lot of hope,” she said.
By incorporating three basic exercises – reading out loud, completing simple math problems quickly, and writing by hand – the program helps activate the prefrontal cortex (associated with memory retrieval), which research has shown can improve cognitive health, memory recall, focus and more. Designed for individuals with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), those with early or moderate dementia, and those with no cognitive impairment, the program comes in the form of a printable workbook and is offered free of charge—a benefit that’s especially important to Goodwin House.
By incorporating three basic exercises, the program helps activate the prefrontal cortex (associated with memory retrieval), which research has shown can improve cognitive health, memory recall, focus and more.
“Our biggest goal is that we always keep this free and accessible,” Fredericksen said. “We want everybody to be able to improve their brain health, regardless of their resources or location or computer connection.”
First created in 2011 by now-CEO Rob Liebreich as a way to help his mother through her own journey with MCI, the program helps the entire brain work together through accessing our memories of early learning. The exercises – ideally done 10 minutes a day, at least five days a week – allow the brain to form new connections and ultimately improve brain health. This type of preventive approach to cognitive issues is a welcome change among professionals, Fredericksen said.
“I think for so long we were really focused on finding out how do these diseases work and is there a cure, and can we find a cure?” she said. “And in recent years as we learn more and more, there is a ton of research that backs up this idea that people can address these modifiable risk factors. People can do things that are preventive, and we can actually move the needle on this. We can either delay or reduce your risk of dementia, or maybe even improve your brain health.”
Since its launch, Goodwin House has been focused on sharing the program across the country and recently announced a statewide partnership with the Maryland Department of Aging, which is providing funding to offer the program at senior centers across the state. They’ve also since applied for funding to roll out StrongerMemory in all skilled nursing facilities in Virginia and working to create a more robust digital platform for the program. Currently, anyone can access the program materials – offered in both English and Spanish – through the Goodwin House website free of charge.
Anyone can access the program materials – offered in both English and Spanish – through the Goodwin House website free of charge.
The organization is also currently working with George Mason University to study the effect of the program on participants – early results are already showing a statistically significant benefit – but Fredericksen said the positive reviews are already rolling in.
“Those that stick with it generally have done so because they really notice an improvement,” she said. “And if somebody has no cognitive impairment to begin with, what they’ll notice is that they can focus better. I hear a lot of people say, ‘Oh, I used to get all my exercise by walking back and forth in all the rooms in my house to remember what I was doing. And now I don’t have to do that anymore.’”
But beyond just the measurable improvement in brain health the organization hopes to achieve, Fredericksen said StrongerMemory serves as another method to help diminish the stigma and fear that’s typically existed around cognitive issues.
“I think we’re really in this moment where our current generation of older adults is willing to open up the conversation about brain health,” she said. “The research is there to show that we have some hope—and we can really make a change and have an impact.”