Dr. Krystal L. Culler, DBH, M.A.: Distinguished Young Woman

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Dr. Krystal L. Culler, DBH, M.A.: Distinguished Young Woman

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Dr. Krystal L. Culler, DBH, M.A. is the director of the Center 4 Brain Health at Menorah Park, which started with 600% more participants than planned. Although she just finished a year as an Atlantic Fellow in August, she states her greatest professional accomplishment was simply getting the Center 4 Brain Health developed at all.

Culler was handed a plan to shape a community-based service that is the first non-pharmacological, non-hospital based in the Cleveland area. The business plan was developed with input from the community from individuals to large institutions to make sure the services filled an unmet need. The process of developing the Center 4 Brain Health from a business plan, laptop, and desk to an operational center within 6 months is her greatest accomplishment, Culler said.

Preventative medicine is on-trend, this includes being proactive about brain health. The center’s programs, classes, and services are primarily for people without brain health diagnoses and for people who were not already associated with the myriad of programs and residences Menorah Park already has on-site like independent living apartments, assisted living, and a nursing home. The center’s program areas are cognitive fitness, emotional wellness, social well-being and personal health of participants.

Dr. Culler launched the center in time for National Memory Screening Day in November 2015 with three days of free community screenings. (These screenings are offered by appointment year-round at the center.) According to the Alzheimer’s Association, screening for Alzheimer’s is how to treat the disease most effectively and a great way to combat the counterproductive “common sense” that “memory loss is just a normal part of aging” that is not worth investigating.

With their evidence-based classes around brain health, the center on the Menorah Park Campus in Beachwood promotes itself as the “College of the Brain” or “Memory University.” Participants are not just older adults; past participants have ranged in age from 34-102!

With an open door policy and classes from beginner to advanced, participants arrive post-stroke, post-chemotherapy, or simply pre-retirement wanting to know more about the brain.

Dr. Culler says “people are more informed about how stress affects brain health” so it is no wonder the center has classes to manage stress. Some people have traveled 75 miles to access the center’s programs. Growth, in fact has been her biggest challenge to accommodate the public’s avid interest in brain health. Positive word-of-mouth has fueled their growth.

Starting with a small staff, they have had to be strategic and positive about their work, target their audiences, and use instructors and Menorah Park staff for special content areas to be able to do the amount of education they do. It is common for them to do workshops at senior centers and at meetings of groups of professionals. Regardless the community setting, or if it is with their own Menorah Park residents, their instructors activate and develop adults’ ability to engage in developing a brain-healthy lifestyle. Dr. Culler reflects, “brain health is positive, but it has a negative stigma.”

Participants come from near and far and so have their accolades. Right out of the gate, the International Council on Active Aging, Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging, and American Society on Aging have all designated Center 4 Brain Health as a leader in its field and communities around the country study and replicate their best practices. Dr. Culler herself has been recognized with the Crain’s Cleveland Business “Forty Under 40” and The Cleveland Professional 20/30 Club “Movers & Shakers Award” in 2017.

The initial goal of the center was to impact 200 people in the community within the first year and 400 people in the community in our second year. For a new center, Dr. Culler was a little nervous, but for no reason apparently. Within six months the center impacted 1,300 people and within fourteen months the center impacted over 5,100 people in the greater Cleveland area. Dr. Culler credits the interest of the community in being proactive about brain health as the real reason so many accolades have come to the center.

“I am inspired by the participants at our Center for Brain Health. Their engagement in our cognitive fitness classes and enthusiasm to learn new brain health and wellness information that can be applied to their daily lives is motivation.”

It might not be surprising that after launching the first brain health center located on a senior living campus in the United States, Dr. Culler was selected to be an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health, an opportunity she describes as “once in a lifetime.” She spent a four month residency at the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. She described the institute’s goal as to “reduce the impact of dementia globally, [and] rapidly translate recent evidence and innovation into policy and practice.”

While there, “I looked into community-based dementia care to bring those ideas back.”

Her experience as a fellow drove home her personal need to work on changing policy as an activist and advocate for brain health. Traditional coursework in the US taught her only about policy in respect to understanding US healthcare policy. Her cohort took a deep dive on how to affect policy.

“I need to get more involved on the local and state level. Ohio is one of the states that doesn’t have a dementia plan…My education is a privilege.” She understands her fellowship was “to impact and have new areas of expertise advance policy and the funding forward, to better serve” brain health here.

“Other states have state-wide dementia plans. We have age-friendly, but not dementia-friendly policies and plans.” Plans include how to encourage businesses to be more dementia-friendly and how to create communities where people with memory diagnoses can remain socially engaged. Many of the plans involve awareness-building efforts on the grassroots level.

“Women suffer from depression, stroke and dementia twice as much as men and an astounding 70% of new Alzheimer’s patients will be women.” Improving lives despite such disparities “will come down to our policies,” Dr. Culler explains. She has already offered classes on the social determinants of brain health and she will have another one post-fellowship at the center soon. “Brain health is 30% genetic, but 70% lifestyle.” October 19th, she is teaching a class entitled “Women and-Brain-Health: From Tips to Science.”

“The brain health field identifies health disparities that impact women and individuals from different races with new initiatives examining the role of women at the epicenter of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.” Dr. Culler was encouraged that at the Alzheimer’s Disease International Conference, for the first time, it had a session on women and brain health.

“Brain health is a hot topic in health care and Cleveland is on the map with the recent launch of the Cleveland Brain Health Initiative,” she continued.

The Initiative, out of Case Western Reserve University, launched a couple weeks ago with the collaboration of four major health systems and 470 neuroscience researchers. “It is an exciting time for brain health in the area!”

Dr. Culler keeps very engaged in Northeast Ohio besides doing outreach for the center. She currently teaches at two universities and is a new contributing author to “a blog that discusses all things mental performance optimization” called Prymd. Nationally. Dr. Culler participates as a member of the National Task Group on Intellectual Disabilities and Dementia and is actively involved with the American Society on Aging. She recently was appointed to their Healthcare and Aging Network Leadership Committee.

Even when she is relaxing “with my four-legged kids (my dogs and fat cat),” she engages with the community through pets. Since 2009, she has volunteered with Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit organization that provides service dogs to individuals with disabilities, raising three puppies for them and contributing as a speaker. Previously, she volunteered with Crossroads Hospice as a registered therapy dog handler with Pet Partners.

She loves the outdoors and the Chagrin Falls area, in particular. “Sometimes they have events close to the water, and some restaurants and the parks are pet-friendly.”