Flex that Memory Muscle: Three Partners Promote Healthy Aging

“Today we’re continuing to focus on strategies that help us maintain and even improve our brain health,” says University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing student Laura Block.

“Today’s brain health strategy is sleep,” says Block, standing before an attentive group in a mirrored gym room.

“We don’t know exactly why humans need such a long period of rest, instead of several shorter rest times throughout the day like other species. But we do know that sleep is crucial for both brain and body health.”

Exercising at the beginning of the “Brain and Body Fitness” class

Her audience is twenty mostly older people in casual athletic wear. It’s the sixth of ten weekly meetings for a new Madison School and Community Recreation (MSCR) class for people age 50 and older called Brain and Body Fitness.

Each class starts with a half-hour of guided gentle exercise. Then that week’s topic is introduced. Prior weeks, the group had learned how medications, socialization, exercise and the senses can affect brain function.

For the remaining hour of the class, participants rotate between three “brain fitness” exercise stations.

“We have two brain exercises today that require some creativity, while also exercising our recall or memory muscle,” says Block. “We’ve also brought back another round of brain puzzles.”

At one brain fitness station, Block reads proverbs with some words missing. The participants fill in the blanks.

Block leads the proverb completion “brain fitness” station

“That’s water under the…” says Block.

“Bridge!” several women call out.

“I would say dam,” responds another.

“That makes sense too,” agrees Block.

“You just like to say that word,” her friend teases, as the group laughs.

Brain and Body Fitness is a unique collaboration among three partners.

The idea came from Dane County Dementia Care Specialist Joy Schmidt. She previously recruited and trained volunteers to engage one-on-one with people living with dementia, from her office at the Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC).

When Schmidt wanted to expand her approach, she turned to MSCR fitness specialist Jean O’Leary and UW–Madison School of Nursing Assistant Professor Andrea Gilmore-Bykovskyi, PhD, RN.

“I knew I wanted to reach more people, but I wouldn’t be able to do it alone,” says Schmidt. “After hearing Andrea speak about health disparities in diverse communities, I asked if she would like to get involved. The results have been well beyond my expectations. The methods are well thought out and researched, and the activities help participants think about their brain health in new ways.”

Gilmore-Bykovskyi and her research team—including Block—study care delivery and health disparities among people living with, and at risk for, Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

“As a team working in the area of Alzheimer’s and dementia, we see the critical need to work upstream and in the community to push the needle in the right direction for whomever we can,” says Gilmore-Bykovskyi. “Unfortunately, there is currently no cure or treatment for Alzheimer’s and dementia. We feel we have a responsibility to contribute to efforts that build the capacity of our communities to address healthy brain aging.”

Gilmore-Bykovskyi is familiar with the research showing that physical exercise and social interactions support brain health later in life. She and her team adapted some material from other programs for Brain and Body Fitness. They also developed new educational content and exercises to meet the needs of class participants.

Gilmore-Bykovskyi feels the time that she and her team are putting into the class is well worth it.

“I was thrilled to hear from Joy about Brain and Body Fitness, and for the opportunity for our team to contribute,” says Gilmore-Bykovskyi. “Accessible and tangible things you can do to maintain and promote healthy brain aging are in high demand. But older adults often find them hard to come by.”

MSCR, the third partner in Brain and Body Fitness, provides the space for the class and the ability to reach adults across the city.

Drawing the completed proverb is another “brain fitness” activity

“Our university collaborations provide such rich experiences,” says MSCR’s Jean O’Leary.

“I realize how lucky we are with this collaboration,” says O’Leary. “We’ve gotten great feedback on this class. I just saw people giving hugs as they went out the door. It’s a good experience for people for a lot of different reasons.”

Brain and Body Fitness participants agree.

Zayda signed up for the class because her mother “had dementia, Alzheimer’s or whatever, so I know I don’t want to go through that. And the class is through the ADRC, UW and MSCR, so I knew it was going to be really good. It’s been even better than I expected.”

Sally Jo is more interested in physical fitness. “My partner just had knee replacement surgery. Like most men, he’s not a joiner—so if I do it, he’ll do it,” she says. “So I dragged him along and he’s really getting a lot out of this. We’re both more limber. I can see it!”

“The exercise feels wonderful,” Koso agrees. “It helps my back and my bad knees. I can really bend a lot more now than I did before, because I do practice the walks when I get home.”

“I think it’s a wonderful connection between the School of Nursing and ADRC,” says Nancy. “My goodness, it makes sense. The more we can stay active, the better off we are as we age.”

–Diane Farsetta