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Take Your Brain to Boot Camp

Try this 14-day plan to boost your memory.

BOOT CAMP SOUNDS like the perfect place to send that mouthy brat who used to sit in the back row constantly disrupting class. But Gary Small, MD, isn’t exactly a drill instructor from Parris Island: He’s slender, smiles, wears glasses, and doesn’t have a haircut so close and flat that you could land a jet fighter on it. He won’t even yell “Maggot! Git down and gimme 20!” Yet Small, professor of psychiatry at UCLA and director of the UCLA Center on Aging is just as serious as a typical Marine DI about his two-week memory boot camp.

“At first my colleagues were skeptical,” says Small, author of The Longevity Bible: 8 Essential Strategies for Keeping Your Mind Sharp and Your Body Young and The Memory Prescription. “They called it ‘boot-camp lite.’” But Small knows that if he had designed a 12-week program—as long as Marine boot camp—people wouldn’t stick to it. “Two weeks allows a person to get used to some lifestyle changes and see improved short-term results,” he adds.

Some decline in memory is natural as we age. In addition, people who reach the age of 65 have a 5 percent chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease, although Small speculates that incidences are lower among educators. “I think that being an educator helps, but it is not going to guarantee that you’ll not get Alzheimer’s,” he says.

Four-Part Program. Small’s Memory Boot Camp is designed as a four-pronged assault against this decline: It includes exercise, nutrition, stress reduction, and memory-enhancing activities.

  1. The program’s physical activity is modest, starting with light stretching and calisthenics, plus a 5-minute walk in the morning and a 10-minute walk in the evening. This builds up to a 15- to 30-minute morning walk and a 10- to 15-minute evening walk two weeks later. (Hardly the Marine Corps’ minimum run of 3 miles in 28 minutes.) “The physical activities are light,” Small says, “because studies show that you don’t have to become a triathlete to get brain benefits. Ten minutes a day may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s.”
  2. The nutrition plan is not a diet-diet. (“What we found is that most people lost weight without trying—two pounds over two weeks,” says Small. “We ask people not to overeat, and to stop when they are full.”) The brain-healthy daily menu of three meals and three snacks is high in omega-3, antioxidants, fresh vegetables and fruits; avoids processed foods; and goes light on complex carbohydrates to keep blood sugar on an even keel. A high glycemic index may result in diabetes—and that’s not good for a healthy brain.
  3. Relaxation techniques, which again take only a few minutes a day, aim to reduce stress, which is bad for the memory.
  4. Finally, focused mental activities take just a few minutes and increase in complexity over two weeks’ time. They are the crux of the program.

The Payoff. A pilot study of the program, to be published in American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, looked at some of the changes in a relatively small number of subjects. Of the 17 people in the study, eight were randomly chosen to take part in the boot-camp exercises, and nine, who went on with their usual lifestyles, were chosen as the control group. Ages of the participants ranged from 35 to 70.

The study found that the eight happy boot campers showed a significant 5 percent improvement in word fluency—that is, how quickly they could retrieve words from their memories. The program group also showed highly significant change in everyday working memory—the ability of the brain to retain information short-term, such as remembering a phone number from directory assistance and dialing it without writing it down.

In PET scans taken before and after the boot camp, program subjects displayed a 5 percent change in brain activity while at mental rest, whereas the control group showed no change. “Mental rest shows how well brain cells are communicating in the working memory,” Small explains. “It’s like setting the idle on a car to a lower rpm. They’re using less energy and showing better scores on memory tasks.” Meanwhile the control group used up a lot of brainpower, and not efficiently. In short, their brains were set on high idle.

In another study, the systolic blood pressure of boot-camp participants dropped by seven points. Research has indicated a connection between normal blood pressure levels and a delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s. Now Small is performing a larger six-week study at a Maryland retirement facility.

A Place to Start. Small’s two-week boot camp introduces people to exercising their brains. “A lot of people need to familiarize themselves with concepts gradually,” he explains. “As they gain more confidence, we make it more difficult.” He equates the program with riding a bicycle: For a young child it’s a new skill, and you can’t expect to remove the training wheels, hop on the saddle, and immediately compete in a 24-hour race. But at the same time, as with bicycling, there are no superhuman, extraordinary feats required. “You can learn names and faces, but we don’t need to have you memorize 20 faces at a cocktail party,” Small explains. “That’s a cute parlor trick, but it’s not essential.”

Phil Scott has written for Scientific American and New Scientist. This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn, Spring 2006.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community.

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