We often hear about using brain-boosting activities to reduce the risk of developing cognitive impairment, but did you know that mental stimulation is just as important for people who have already developed cognitive impairment? The Goodwin Living Stronger Memory program is a free and simple practice with promising outcomes. It uses simple math, reading aloud, and writing prompts to stimulate the brain’s prefrontal cortex and increase working memory.

BLH: How did the Stronger Memory program get started?

Jessica Fredericksen: Stronger Memory was conceptualized by the Goodwin Living CEO, Rob Liebriech, when his mother, Wendy, started showing signs of mild cognitive impairment. She was forgetting information and appointments and got lost driving in her neighborhood. Wendy asked her son, who was working in senior living, to find something for her to do to protect her memory.

Rob found that research was being done in Japan where people with advanced dementia who practiced counting and simple math had improved cognitive test scores. He used that research to develop a program for his mom. Her memory improved significantly.

In 2019, Rob and Wendy joined forces with an occupational therapist to turn Wendy’s individual program into the Stronger Memory program. They began sharing the information online in 2020.

BLH: What does the program entail?

JF: The program uses simple math, reading aloud, and writing for 30 minutes a day five days a week. It works the prefrontal cortex, which is behind the forehead and controls recall and working memory. Working memory is things like walking into the kitchen and remembering what you wanted to get, keeping things in mind, like a series of tasks, remembering people’s names, and recalling words.

There is also a weekly social component, which is very beneficial.

BLH: Has the program been formally studied?

JF: A study of 100 people at George Mason University found statistically significant improvements on the Mini Montreal Cognitive Assessment 2.1 (Mini MoCA), specifically in the recall section. In the study, even the people who did not have MCI showed improvements in their memory—but the improvements were more significant in the former group. I use it and it helped me recover from COVID brain fog.

There isn’t as much research on using the program in people with severe dementia, but studies in Japan that focused on simpler numeracy suggest that it is effective in that population, too. (Numeracy skills involve counting, solving numerical problems, sorting, measuring, estimating, and other tasks related to understanding numbers.)

Similarly, while the program includes full writing prompts for people with MCI, someone with more advanced disease may benefit from writing their name or spelling out words.

A program facilitator was working on the program with a client with advanced dementia. The client didn’t want to write a lot, but he would spell out his name.

When he got to the math section, though, he got a big smile. After completing the section, he said he felt good and proud of himself because he didn’t think he could do it. That boost to self-esteem and socialization is an important benefit, too.

The program doesn’t reverse anything medically, and it’s not a cure, but it can improve symptoms and seems to delay disease progression.

BLH: What is the role of handwriting?

JF: The program includes a variety of prompts, and participants are meant to handwrite responses. Writing activates the brain-body connection, just as reading aloud does. We activate more of the brain when we are physically engaged. Research shows when we are typing, our hands are making the same movement over and over, but writing by hand activates the prefrontal cortex. The prompts also help bring up old memories, helping people think about things they may not have thought about otherwise.

BLH: The math section is very simple. Why not focus on more advanced math?

JF: The program is designed to help different parts of the brain work together. When you do simple math quickly, you use both hemispheres of the brain. It’s like doing piano scales: You strengthen neural pathways by going back to basics.

Wendy was doing well with the program, so Rob tried making the math section harder to provide more challenge. But instead of being beneficial, Wendy was having trouble with the math and getting stressed. We know that when we have stress, cortisol rises, and we can’t focus or retain information as well. Wendy ultimately began losing some of the progress that she’d made, so Rob returned to simpler math exercises.

BLH: How can people access the program?

JF: The workbook is available for free at https://goodwinliving.org/stronger-memory/packets/. If you prefer a hard copy, you can order one for a small fee. We host weekly groups at Goodwin Living campuses in Virginia and the District of Columbia. We’ve also partnered with the National Council on Aging to spread the program through senior centers across the country.
Your readers can e-mail us at Stronger Memory@goodwinliving.org and we’ll help find the closest location.

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