At Risk Americans Try to Keep Alzheimer's at Bay

Fifty-eight-year-old Nancy Levitt of Los Angeles has spent nearly her entire life watching someone in her family succumb to Alzheimer's or dementia.

Her mother, her father, both her grandmothers and six of her aunts and uncles have all lived with Alzheimer's memory-stripping symptoms.

"I'm scared to death," she said. "I'm more frightened of this than getting in a car accident or something horrible like that."

Every time she forgets the smallest thing, Levitt fears the worst. "My concerns are that I won't be able to remember my life," she said, "or live independently and take care of myself."

In an attempt to keep such worries at bay, Levitt has embarked on an early fight against memory loss. She's getting her brain into shape by taking classes at UCLA Medical Center that are taught by Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging.

Small has developed breakthrough brain-imaging technology that allows physicians to detect brain aging and Alzheimer's disease years before patients show symptoms.

Small teaches what he calls memory boot camp, a class that includes exercise, nutrition, stress reduction and memory-enhancing activities that he calls mental aerobics. He said that according to his research, brain exercise has a significant effect on brain function as measured on PET and FMRI scans that show increased efficiency in the brain.

"If you learn specific memory techniques, you will improve your memory performance not only in a very short period of time, but you can have a sustained effects up to four, five years," Small said.

Brain health programs are popping up around the country, offering baby boomers anxious to stave off Alzheimer's or dementia a possible cognitive fountain of youth.

One of the latest examples is a gym that recently opened on Florida's west coast. The Sarasota Neurobics Club doesn't house a single Stairmaster or treadmill. Instead, members pay $125 a month for access to computers loaded up with brain fitness software and personal training sessions with George Rozelle, the club's founder.

The idea is that the mind works best when it works out, which means stretching beyond what it does every day and tackling new tasks, like a chef learning to play a musical instrument or a mechanic taking up sketching.

Some researchers worry that certain brain fitness programs might be taking advantage of baby boomers' fears about memory loss.

Dr. David Loewenstein is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami School of Medicine and director of research for the Wein Center for Alzheimer's Disease and Memory Disorders, a joint program of Mount Sinai Medical Center and the University of Miami.

"I think the caution is there is no data or scientific evidence to suggest that these programs, despite their more attractive packages, are any more effective than anything that one could be doing on one's own … such as anagrams or crossword puzzles," Loewenstein said.

Regardless of the critics, the market for these games and software is growing. Companies, including Nintendo, have released new, best-selling videogames, such as "Brain Age." Specifically targeted at boomers, the games promise to make them mentally sharper.

As a result, 24 percent of the computer and video game population is now over the age of 50, according to data released last month from the Entertainment Software Association.

While Nancy Levitt is not a huge fan of video games, she does find that doing daily memory fitness exercises works -- she misplaces and forgets things less frequently than she used to.

Memory is everything to her: It defines her past, present and future. She is doing all that she can to keep her mind intact.