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Memory Champ, Alzheimer’s Activist Inspired by Grandma’s Struggle

In a little more than a minute, Nelson Dellis can memorize the exact order of a shuffled deck of playing cards and recite it back to you, flawlessly.

Give him five minutes, and he'll memorize a string of over 300 digits, again, being able to repeat them without making a mistake.

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Dellis isn't a magician or a member of Mensa—he's one of the millions of people whose lives have been forever altered by bearing witness to the agonizing decline of a loved one with Alzheimer's disease.

"Nobody really takes Alzheimer's that seriously, unless they've witnessed it first-hand," says Dellis, whose grandmother, Josephine, passed away from the disease in 2009. "Near the end it was extremely difficult, especially when she couldn't remember who I was."

Climbing mountains, both mental and physical

The profound experience of dealing with a beloved grandmother who could no longer remember his name inspired Dellis to pursue two goals: to safeguard his brain against the ravages of Alzheimer's, and to establish "Climb for Memory," a charity that coordinates climbing expeditions across the globe to raise money and awareness to combat the memory-robbing disease.

Dellis' efforts have led him to lofty heights.

This March, he will attempt to win his third consecutive USA National Memory Championship: a yearly competition that pits the country's best mental athletes against one another to see who can best perform monstrous feats of memorization, including a list of 500 words, an unpublished poem, and over 100 names and faces.

Dellis has also climbed some of the highest peaks in the world, including Mt. Ranier, Mt. McKinley, Mont Blanc and Alpamayo.

"I've always loved the mountains. There's just something so humbling about them," says Dellis, who came within 280 vertical feet of summiting the fabled Mt. Everest in 2011. "When you're at the base of a mountain looking up, it just makes you feel so small and insignificant. It puts everything into perspective." He will be making his second attempt to tackle the behemoth in the spring of 2013.

Dellis admits that his initial failure to reach the peak really hammered home the importance of preserving life's little memories. "It's good to remember that life is all about those little surrounding moments that build up to those major things, not the major things themselves," he says.

Exercise of all forms helps preserve mental health

There's no sure-fire way to stave off Alzheimer's disease, but that doesn't mean that one should adopt a defeatist attitude when it comes to aging and preventing memory loss. Just because you're getting older and may forget where you put your car keys now and again is no cause for alarm.

According to board-certified neurologist, David Perlmutter, M.D., consistently challenging the brain with a combination of healthy social interactions, aerobic exercise and mental drills can be extremely advantageous for preserving long-term mental acuity. "Unlike other body systems, the brain retains a remarkable ability to regenerate itself, lifelong," he says.

Dellis is the embodiment of this advice—engaging in a regular routine that involves brain exercises, CrossFit workouts and training for his climbs. Choosing to lead by example, his ultimate aim is to spread the word about brain health and educate people on how to improve their lives.

"If I can make people excited about memorization, staying fit, and having a healthy brain, then I feel like I'm doing my job," he says. "It won't cure Alzheimer's, but it gets people thinking about it, and that can be contagious."

Training tips from a memory champ

Your day-to-day life may not require you to memorize long strings of numbers, or the precise order of a deck of 52 cards.

But, here's an easy way to incorporate one of Dellis' go-to memory training techniques—called the "loci method"—into your everyday routine:

  1. First, think about your grocery list for the coming week. It may help to write it down and try to make each item as simple as possible (i.e. mozzarella cheese as opposed to Sargento brand, 2% milk mozzarella cheese). Let's say your list has ten different things on it: grapes, bread, mint frozen yogurt, laundry detergent, dog food, bananas, milk, toilet paper, ground turkey and a gossip magazine.
  2. Once you have your list finalized, sit down and close your eyes.
  3. In your mind picture a place you're very familiar with. Dellis suggests using your house.
  4. Picture yourself going about your regular routine—getting out of bed in the morning, brushing your teeth, checking on your loved one, going downstairs to make breakfast, etc.
  5. Next, begin adding in the items on your grocery list into your mental montage. The key part of this step is to add the items in a crazy, emotionally-charged (in other words, memorable) way.
  6. For example, imagine that when you get out of bed in the morning, your floor is covered in grapes. Whenever you step on them, the grapes squeal in protest. With your feet covered in sticky grape jam (what an annoying way to start the day), you stalk to the bathroom and furiously wipe them on your bath mat, which, as it turns out, is made entirely of bread. You grab your toothbrush and scoop some mint-flavored frozen yogurt onto it and begin to brush your teeth. After polishing your pearly whites, you walk into the hallway, where the dirty clothes in the hamper start pestering you about switching laundry detergents. The last few washes have been very unpleasant for them. And so on.
  7. By populating a familiar setting (your house) with outlandish, emotion-driven objects and occurrences, you'll be able to more easily remember everything you need at the store, no list required.

To learn more about Climb for Memory, and stay up to date on Dellis' progress as he attempts to summit Everest and snag a third consecutive USA Memory Championship, visit the Climb for Memory website.
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