Neurologist Majid Fotuhi, M.D.

Neurologist Majid Fotuhi, M.D. (Photo by Nate Pesce / March 4, 2014)

Howard County's rapidly growing senior population got some mixed news last week. The bad news: The part of their brain that controls short-term memory has been shrinking at an average rate of .5 percent a year since they turned 50. The good news: That shrinkage can be reversed.

Dr. Majid Fotuhi, a Harvard- and Johns Hopkins-trained neurologist, author of three books on the human brain and owner of a brain training center that opened last fall in Columbia, last week launched a series of six lectures on boosting your brain with an hour-long talk at the East Columbia 50+ Center.

Sponsored by the county Office on Aging, the series is something of a follow-up to Fotuhi's keynote address at the county's annual 50+ EXPO for seniors last year.

"It was very popular and very well-received," Barbara Scher, manager of the Office on Aging's Senior Center division, said of the keynote address. Scher said seniors have a keen interest in keeping their brain healthy as a component of their staying healthy and active in general.

"Brain health is a hot topic these days," she said. "You mention something with the brain or memory, people come out in droves."

About 60 seniors showed up March 5 for the East Columbia lecture, the topic of which was "Grow Your Brain at Any Age." The second of his lectures, entitled "Six Steps to a Better Brain" and held the following day at the Elkridge Senior Center, attracted about 40 people.

Three more lectures are scheduled for later this month. (The first lecture, scheduled for March 4 at the Glenwood 50+ Center, was canceled because of bad weather and rescheduled for April 10.)

Brain crazy

Brain health has been a hot topic for Fotuhi since he was 7 and his father told him about "brain plasticity," the brain's ability to change its structure. More than four decades later, after picking up degrees at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, Fotuhi, 51, speaks on the subject frequently at seminars and conferences, and has appeared on a variety of television shows, including the Dr. Oz Show just last week.

Three years go, Fotuhi opened the NeurExpand Brain Center in Baltimore County's Lutherville. His aim was to use the latest research to design individualized, multidisciplinary treatment for his clients, most of them men and women in their 50s or older who are worried about memory loss. In October, he opened a larger, 6,000-square-foot brain center on Charter Drive, near Howard County General Hospital.

Fotuhi said Howard has proven to be fertile ground for such a center.

"In Howard County, people are very conscious of health-related issues," he said in an interview. "Other health issues were covered here, but brain health was the only thing that was missing."

During his talk in Columbia last week, Fotuhi shared many of the tenets of his practice.

He talked of the physical and mental ailments that can shrink the brain's hippocampus, which is critical for short-term memory, including diabetes, obesity, stress, sleep apnea, depression and more. He said memory loss and even Alzheimer's disease are not inevitable, and can be averted with proper care.

He said physical exercise is "the single most important thing you can do" to prevent or even reverse brain shrinkage, but that a multidisciplinary approach, which also includes memory games, meditating and sleeping and eating well, works best.

"This is not science fiction," he said. "These are things that have been shown scientifically."

Fotuhi also suggested that the audience get started by memorizing three or four names every day, and told them not to be discouraged by failure. "The fact that you're challenging yourself, even asking the name again and again, that means the brain is growing," he said.

During his lecture, Fotuhi also showed how good a memory can be by rattling off the first names of a dozen or so people in the audience that he'd met before his talk.

In another memory game, which turned out to be a less-than-subtle business plug as well, he gave the audience a telephone number and told them he wanted them to memorize it. At the end of his lecture, he asked them to recite that number.

When they did so, in unison, Fotuhi nodded his approval. "That's our phone number," he said, as laughter erupted. "So if you have any questions. …"

'Looking for answers'

Dr. Richard Caselli, co-author of the book "Alzheimer's Disease and Its Varients: A Diagnostic and Therapeutic Guide," agreed that recent research and studies have focused on the benefits of exercise, brain games and meditation in keeping the brain healthy.

A neurology professor at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine based in Scottsdale, Ariz., Caselli said Fotuhi's approach is similar to what is being used elsewhere to treat memory loss — including a Mayo Clinic program in Rochester, Minn.

"People want something," said Caselli, noting the thirst for cures for the ailments that plague the elderly, a fast-growing segment of the population.

Like elsewhere, Howard County's senior population is on the rise. From 2000 to 2010, the number of county residents 50 years and older increased from 57,169 to 87,237, a 53 percent increase, according to census figures provided by the Office on Aging.

During the same period, according to the same data, the number of county residents 60 and older soared from 26,606 to 44,638, a 68 percent increase.

Men and women 60 and older made up 15.5 percent of the county population in 2010, compared to 10.7 percent in 2000.

County seniors interviewed after last week's lecture in Columbia were intrigued by Fotuhi's presentation — and in some cases, motivated.

Walking to their car afterward, 78-year-old Jackie Derr and her 70-plus friend, Donna Graham, both of Columbia, were quick to take his advice:

As they walked, they tried to remember as many names of other attendees as they could.

"I was very impressed," Derr said of the lecture. "I'm going to go home and try to practice some of the things he talked about."

Graham was equally impressed.

"I'm always looking for answers to keeping myself going," she said. "I have longevity in my family, and I want to stay healthy."

Bill Runge, a 75-year-old Columbia resident, said he liked the multidisciplinary approach Fotuhi recommended.

"I think he's hit on something there," Runge said. "All of us want to stay in our home as long as possible. All of us want to stay active, stay healthy. If this will help, I'm all for it."

Harriet Hertz, 66, echoed that thought.

"I picked up a lot of useful information, things I can incorporate into my lifestyle in the next few months, or years," the Columbia resident said. "You need to stay on top of things as you age."

Dave Dammen, 77, said the lecture reinforces "that exercise is the most important thing."

And has he been following that advice?

"Not enough," Dammen conceded. "I've been more in the sedentary lifestyle. I guess I gotta get my butt in gear."

Upcoming lectures

The county Office on Aging will sponsor five more lectures this month by local neurologist Majid Fotuhi, at the following locations:

Ellicott City Senior Center (410-313-1400). Tuesday, March 25, 1 p.m. "Lifting the Fog: Menopause and the Brain."

Bain Center, Columbia (410-313-7213), Friday, March 28, 10 a.m. "Faith, Spirituality and Your Brain."

North Laurel 50+ Center (410-313-0380), Friday, March 28, 1 p.m. "Baby Boomers: Improve Memory at Every Age."

• Glenwood 50+ Center (410-313-5440), April 10, 1 p.m. "ProActive Aging: Food & Lifestyle Choices."

Seating is limited, so call the senior center hosting the event to register. For further information, go to howardcountymd.gov/aging.