Nancy Trant is standing in front of a whiteboard, talking about her fear of heights — not ladders, of course, but vast expanses like the Grand Canyon, which was “breathtaking” but frightening without the benefit of something to hold onto. That leads to other fear-filled tales as 16 older adults and a class facilitator at the Tenth East Senior Center in Salt Lake City begin to share stories.

Harvey Boyd tells a hair-raising tale of driving a truck on a steep switchback road so twisty and narrow that an inattentive driver could plunge off one side or scrape along the other. He had offered to drive a truck up that road to camp on a mountain biking trip. A woman he didn’t know who rode along in the truck was on the drop-off side and was so terrified she kept trying to climb over him. He had to hold her back with one hand while steering with the other, and couldn’t stop for fear the vehicle would stall.

Gayle Tippets describes being stuck on the water in a boat where sharks circled. “I was thinking about how I would taste to a shark,” she says with a little shiver.

They’re sharing memories.

And that’s what brings this group together on Thursday afternoons for a class called StrongerMemory, a program that was pioneered at the Goodwin Living Center in Virginia but is now being used in many programs that serve older people, including in Salt Lake County Aging, which has three senior centers with the classes going right now.

The program is built around the idea that if folks will do three simple 10-minute practices every day, their focus will sharpen and they’ll engage parts of the brain that are key to memory and recall. Despite the three tasks’ almost childlike simplicity, they’re said to work at any age, triggering more activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

  • Read aloud every day for 10 minutes.
  • Write by hand for 10 minutes.
  • Do simple math fast for 10 minutes.

The goal is to do all three daily and if you can figure out how to do them in a way that engages more senses, it’s even better, class instructor Annie C. Cox, a certified health education specialist for Salt Lake County Aging, told Deseret News.

You don’t have to take a class to benefit from doing the tasks. But there are some advantages.

B. Regenass takes notes during StrongerMemory class at the 10th East Senior Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 30, 2024. The StrongerMemory program targets older people, but the principles work at any age, experts say. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Tackling mild cognitive impairment

Rob Liebreich and his mom, Wendy, had both started to notice that she was forgetting things and repeating things she’d already said. When she drove, she sometimes got turned around. She was showing worrisome signs of mild cognitive impairment, which in some cases advances to full-blown dementia. The younger Liebreich was working at a Seattle assisted living center at the time — he’s now the president and CEO of Goodwin Living. He went searching for solutions, concluding that he needed to find a way for his mom to stimulate her prefrontal cortex to bolster recall and processing. At a conference, he learned about reading aloud, writing by hand and simple math.

She agreed to give them a try and they helped her.

As the Goodwin Living blog reports, “She wasn’t repeating herself nearly as often and her memory sharpened. After three months, her math skills improved, along with her ability to focus. She has continued her commitment to daily mental exercises, and in the years since she began this steady practice, Wendy has been able to pick up new skills like learning to play Mahjong, birding and playing better bridge.”

Rob Liebreich was so taken with the results that he wanted to broaden the reach, trying it with the residents with whom he worked in assisted living. With help from a former teacher with occupational therapy experience, they created a program. Liebreich’s goal was simple: Delay cognitive decline and give families more time to build memories together.

The curriculum was taken to George Mason University for validation in a pilot project. The quest to help Wendy Liebreich launched what’s now called the StrongerMemory program, a free brain health resource for families from Goodwin Living.

The program is now offered in many places and anyone interested can also download the program book if they want to work it alone at home or there’s no class offered nearby. George Mason tested it as a 12-week program; Salt Lake County Aging boiled it down to 10. Programs are given great flexibility.

Nancy Trant shares a memory during StrongerMemory class at the 10th East Senior Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 30, 2024. The StrongerMemory program targets older people, but the principles work at any age, experts say. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Back to basics

Trant takes a lot of classes at multiple senior centers, delighted by learning and growing. This one, with its three tasks, reminds her of when she was in grade school. Her brain was busy developing and absorbing back in first grade, she said, and she figures this lights up the brain the way it did all those years ago, which has to be good.

Cox has unpacked the elements of the program and how they’re supposed to work, first in an orientation session the first week of each class, and also in an interview with Deseret News. Here’s why the three tasks are believed to help:

Reading aloud: There’s no set assignment for reading; people can read whatever they want. One couple, who didn’t want to be named, said they write from the prompts in the StrongerMemory Workbook — by hand, of course — and then read what they wrote aloud to each other. The woman said she’s learned a lot of things she didn’t know about her husband that way.

Cox said reading comprehension improves when you read aloud. You don’t skip words. Your mind doesn’t wander. “Just those basic things that we learned in elementary school reinforces memory recall.”

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Studies back up the memory-enhancing effects of reading aloud, particularly for children and older adults. A study in Australia divided groups of kids ages 7 to 10 into read-aloud and read-silently groups and gave them a list of words. The read-aloud group recognized 87% of the words, compared to the silent readers’ 70%.

The Speechify blog offers one of the best explanations of why reading aloud is good for the brain: “The act of reading aloud triggers a dual memory process. As you read, you engage the visual memory associated with the written words on the page. Simultaneously, the act of vocalizing the text activates the auditory memory, associating the spoken words with their meanings. This combined effort strengthens memory retention, making it easier to recall information later. Through consistent practice of reading out loud, individuals can enhance their ability to retain and remember details, fostering a more robust memory.”

Some participating in the StrongerMemory program read scripture aloud, others novels. People can read a book together over the course of days over the phone. You can read to your dog or cat if it feels awkward just reading aloud.

Simple math: People think math should be challenging, Cox said. Not in this case. The math is almost flashcard style, super easy and fast. That’s what clicks the memory into gear. Harder math involves other parts of the brain with other goals. Same with things like puzzles and sudoku. This math exercise is about memory. And the workbook has lots and lots of math problems, which get a little harder as you go, but not too much.

All math has underpinnings in memory. Children memorize basic addition and learn their times tables. Revisiting simple math calls up those memories and uses the prefrontal cortex as well. It also uses implicit memory, according to Komodomath.com. Per the article, “Implicit memory is the unconscious memory of skills and how to do things, such as playing guitar or riding a bike. These memories are typically acquired through repetition and practice, and are composed of automatic skills so deeply embedded that we’re no longer aware of them.”

When children master the skills, they move from explicit memory into implicit memory, which creates math fluency.

Older adults employing those skills strengthen their memory and their focus.

Writing by hand: The workbook has 250 prompts for people who can’t decide what they want to write. Those prompts often key into memory, too: Did you have a favorite job? What was it? Or what are some of your greatest achievements?

A new study in Frontiers in Psychology is among the most recent to show that writing by hand is key to learning and memory. Taking notes by hand, as Deseret News reported on the findings, “stimulated more electrical activity in the brain across regions that control movement, vision, sensory processing and memory.”

Cox said some of the folks in the classes she teaches keep journals, which is great. One woman likes to copy Bible verses. But there are some who complain they can’t think of anything to write. What matters is forming the letters with your hands, remembering how to write, as opposed to the up-down of key tapping on a computer.

Doing all three things regularly helps memory. Having a class setting is additive, says Cox, who notes the importance of social connection and the chance to check in. It’s also additive because she offers a few tricks or ideas to help folks stay on track. Last week, they discussed motivation and how to break a task down so it’s manageable. This week’s tip was to “live today the way you want to be.” Cox reminds them that you can’t just eat healthy foods temporarily, then stop and expect the benefits to last. It’s the same with these practices. Next week, they’ll talk about nutrition.

The exercises themselves get done at home, but the classes forge some connections. Then they engage in remembering, which is how they got on the topic of fear.

Kathy Musgrove said she’s an old hand at forgetting, with memory problems since she suffered a big fall and required dozens of surgeries. It’s a wonder she lived, she said, so she takes the class to boost her recall.

Man Diep and her husband, Dat Phan, take the class together. She saw her own mom suffer from memory loss, so she’s doing the reading and writing and math as a preventive tool, Diep said.

Ann Cheves said she’s “looking for new ways of living, of dealing with life.”

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Judy Bramlage has a very specific goal in mind: She wants to increase her memory, because she loves doing genealogy, but she has trouble easily capturing all the information she finds. She hopes it will be easier to hold onto multiple facts as she works through the family tree.

They all want stronger brains and they say they’re already seeing some results.

You can download the booklet free or buy a copy for $17.50 by visiting Goodwinliving.org. The workbook doesn’t promise everyone will see cognitive improvement. But there are no negative side effects, either, it adds, “so give it a try!”

To learn more about the Salt Lake County class and whether there’s one upcoming in your area, contact Cox by calling 385-468-3295. The class is free for those enrolled as a member of a senior center. That’s just a matter of filling out paperwork and membership is free. For others, including those younger than 60, the cost of a day pass is $2.

Man Diep, right, shares a memory during Stronger Memory class as she sits beside B. Regenass at the 10th East Senior Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 30, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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