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.
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against one another to see who can best perform monstrous feats of memorization, including a list of 500 words, an unpublished poem, and over 100 names and faces.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 prevent Alzheimer’s disease, but that doesn’t mean that one should adopt a defeatist attitude when it comes to aging and mental decline. Just because you’re getting older and may forget where you put your car keys now and again is no cause for alarm. There are things you can do to prevent memory loss.
According to board-certified neurologist, Daid Perlmutter, M.D., a person can keep their brain fit by consistently challenging it with a combination of healthy social interactions, aerobic exercise and mental drills. “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 memory 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.”
Keep reading to learn how to perform an ancient memory training technique used by Dellis and other memory wunderkinds…
Memory Champ, Alzheimer’s Activist Inspired by Grandma’s Struggle originally appeared on AgingCare.com.