for the record:
10:56 am May 21, 2023: An earlier version of this story mistakenly mentioned the name of the director of the Cedars-Sinai Memory and Aging Program. He’s Dr. Zaldy Tan.
Eddie Nash, a sophomore at UCLA, looked out at his audience and then read the next question on the large digital screen.
“Which US festival hosted over 350,000 music fans in 1969?” he asked.
Eight attentive students in their 60s and older studied the question and set their minds to work, searching for the answer as if searching a closet for a lost hat.
“Oh, come on, this is so easy. It’s on the tip of my tongue,” said one woman.
There was a range of cognitive abilities, from mild impairment to normal acuity, among the eight older adults who signed up for this Saturday afternoon session of the UCLA Brain Exercise Initiative. But the answer was proving to be elusive, even as that famous show was a soundtrack for this generation.
Nash, part of a group of students who visit senior living centers near campus to question older adults, helped.
“The first letter is W,” he said.
“We all know what it is. We just can’t think about it,” said a woman named Nina, perfectly describing the frustration that plagued crowds for eons.
And then, suddenly, as if a ray of sunlight had broken through the clouds, she understood.
“Woodstock,” Nina announced. While there was a collective sigh of relief from most participants, one woman who couldn’t get past that tongue-tipping barrier acknowledged her distress, saying, “This is embarrassing.”
But, as Nash – a lanky, soft-spoken young man – kept saying in a reassuring and encouraging manner, there’s no failing this class, where everyone gets A’s for participation and effort.
I met Nash at the LA Times Festival of Books, where he worked as an author chaperone, and he told me about his volunteer work with the Brain Exercise Initiative. It’s an example of what policymakers are talking about when they refer to the value of intergenerational relationships, where learning and socializing can be a two-way experience, and collaboration is key to addressing a range of societal challenges related to aging. .
Another good example in the San Fernando Valley is ONEgeneration, in which an adult day care center collaborates with a preschool. Downtown, Heart of Los Angeles has an orchestra made up of children and retirees.
Nash, who wants to become a doctor and specialize in geriatrics, told me that when he was in high school in Thousand Oaks, he worried about his grandmother and other seniors avoiding going to the grocery store during the pandemic. He helped form a local chapter of a national group called Zoomers to Boomers, recruiting colleagues to pick up and deliver groceries.
“We connected 200 older adults with high school kids,” said Nash, who joined the nonprofit Brain Exercise Initiative as part of an in-service training requirement at UCLA.
Esin Gumustekin, a sophomore at the UCLA School of Medicine, started the initiative in 2019 as a graduate student. Her grandmother had Alzheimer’s, she said, “and I was extremely close with her and I saw firsthand how horrible this disease is and how people lose their identity and sense of purpose.”
Gumustekin said there are now 80 chapters at universities across the US and Canada, and the UCLA group has about four dozen student volunteers working several times a week with residents of nearby nursing homes. There are currently more students than demand, which could be a pandemic-related issue.
The session I attended was led by Nash and UCLA medical student Nhi Pham, who worked at a long-term care facility the summer before her senior year of college and is thinking about geriatric medicine. She and Nash took their eight students through a series of general interest questions, puzzle solving, and basic math problems.
What is the quality of an object that allows it to float on water? Name a mammal that cannot jump. What was Elvis Presley’s first big hit? Name some items that come in 12s. What is 54 minus 7 and 27 divided by 9?
Some got the answers quickly; others struggled. Nash and Pham offered clues, encouragement, and congratulations, patiently waiting for each of the eight to come up with the correct answers.
The questions are different each session, with packages developed by Gumustekin and other students based on research by Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashami. The goal is to improve cognitive function, and the Brain Exercise Initiative website states, “We believe that through simple brain exercises… we can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.”
That’s not a widely held belief among neuroscientists and geriatrics experts I’ve talked to about the merits of word games, crossword puzzles, and cognitive training exercises. They extol the many benefits of social interaction and putting the brain to work, but maintain that cognitive enhancement can be limited to the task at hand.
“There is no robust evidence that cognitive training can delay or reverse dementia,” said Dr. Zaldy Tan, an Alzheimer’s specialist at Cedars-Sinai and director of the Memory and Aging Program.
But participating, socializing and facing fears can improve mood and give people a better sense of confidence and well-being, Tan said, all of which are beneficial.
“I think it’s really worth it,” said Patty Hooper, who answered several questions at the session I attended. She said she has occasional “brainstorms” but no specific memory problems, and she finds the Brain Exercise Initiative to be a much better use of her time than watching television.
“I come because it’s fun,” said Larry Abe, who told me he has no memory problems.
Nina, who received the response from Woodstock, declined to share her last name but said she increasingly struggles with tip of the tongue syndrome.
Nina said she is careful to put her belongings in the same place at all times for easy tracking. But she is convinced that the brain exercises, which she started in March, have helped.
“I know my memory is better,” said Nina.
Gumustekin said he believes brain function is improving based on his own experience and testimonials from others. But for her, the benefits of socialization are just as important. She has seen older adults become more engaged and eager to participate, which makes bonding easier.
“It’s a two-way street,” she said, valuing friendships built over generations. “We see them as our grandparents and look forward to going there and volunteering.”
Gumustekin said she became particularly close with a retired gynecologist who attended the sessions.
“She was really a mentor to me as I went through more medical school requirements,” said Gumustekin. “She would always ask, ‘How are your classes going? How’s organic chemistry?’”
Nash works as a graduate research assistant at UCLA’s Drug Discovery Lab, which is searching for therapeutic cures for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders. Alzheimer’s is a complex disease, he said, and it can take years for suffering and death to be alleviated, but this presents young people with both an opportunity and a duty.
“There’s so much we can do,” Nash said. “We just have to do our part.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.