The giant Nintendo store in Manhattan was swarming with silver-haired citizens and their grandchildren. The elders, gathered on a recent Saturday, weren’t there to spoil the kids, however. Nintendo was hosting a video game competition to determine the “Coolest Grandparent,” and the aging gamers in the store were competing for a Nintendo DS handheld game player. They weren’t playing Super Mario Bros. either, but a product called Brain Age, a mind challenger targeted at one of the fastest-growing segments of the game market: people over 40 worried about losing their mental edge.
Meanwhile, at The Hallmark retirement community in Chicago, 16 residents just completed a complex memory training program developed by neuroscientist Michael Merzenich of the University of California at San Francisco. While Brain Age advertises that it can “train your brain in minutes a day,” the Brain Fitness Program, marketed by Merzenich’s Posit Science Corp., is a computer-based set of exercises that a user must sit down with an hour a day for eight weeks.
Posit executives are emphatic that their programs are not video games, and the company published a scientific study in August that lays out the memory-enhancing bona fides of Brain Fitness. Hallmark resident Sadelle T. Greenblatt, age 85, is already convinced. After going through the Brain Fitness course she says “my memory, I think, is in some ways better. When I play bridge now, I can always remember if all the trumps are out.”
Nintendo and Posit are both profiting from the memory decline that is one of the more disquieting markers of aging. As baby boomers march toward senior citizenship, hiding their mental age may prove as important to them as concealing their gray hair. Nintendo says its recent emphasis on what it calls “gray gamers” already pushed second-quarter profits up eightfold.
The industry must face down one potentially large obstacle, however. There is no empirical proof that brain teasers, crossword puzzles, or any of the other mental exercises out there will slow mental decline, or thwart Alzheimer’s disease.
Efforts to improve the aging mind are one of the more contentious areas of science. Shelf after shelf of books call on seniors to “use it or lose it,” arguing that brain activity will prevent cognitive losses. So far, it’s only a catchphrase. Last spring, University of Virginia neuroscientist Timothy A. Salthouse analyzed a large number of studies meant to show that mental challenges arrest brain decline. He found none that proved its thesis. So far, he concluded, “the mental-exercise hypothesis is more of an optimistic hope than an empirical reality.”
Salthouse discovered that most brain-training studies suffer from a “chicken or the egg” problem. It could be that people who performed well in studies involving mental exercises were more mentally agile to begin with. It is true that practice makes perfect, says Matthew L. Shapiro, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “The more you try to remember, the better your skill at remembering.” Still, he says there is little evidence that those improvements will lead to overall mental improvement, and a brain disease “will ultimately overwhelm any efforts to better your skills.”
The most skillful game-playing grandparents at the Nintendo event were proof that practice pays off. Lynn Lipton, a 66-year-old retired teacher from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says she has been an avid video gamer since Pong was introduced some 30 years ago. “I don’t have the data to prove that it helps my memory, but I know it helps me to read faster. It keeps me sharp,” she says.
Not everyone can make that claim at 66, which is why brain training is getting so much attention. The human brain reaches its maximum weight by the age of 20 and then slowly starts shrinking. By age 50 or so memory formation usually slows down, and by 70 some 12% of the population suffers from mild cognitive impairment (MCI), characterized by frequent short-term memory lapses. People with MCI are three to four times more likely than their peers to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
For decades, researchers thought that little could be done once the brain started to decline. But in the early 1990s Merzenich and others discovered that the brain remains plastic throughout life. With training, it can be rewired to learn new skills. From this discovery grew the belief — now an industry — that the aging brain can be taught to be young again.
Nintendo is quick to disavow any scientific claims for its Brain Age games, which cost $19.95 each. “We’re in the entertainment business,” says Perrin Kaplan, head of marketing for Nintendo’s U.S. operations. But Nintendo does boast that Brain Age was developed with the help of Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, a respected Japanese neuroscientist whose face pops up at the start of every game. Kawashima believes brains can be kept young and nimble through the rapid repetition of simple mental challenges. The game is wildly popular in Japan, and 4 million copies have been sold worldwide since Brain Age was introduced 15 months ago.
Posit, founded by Merzenich in 2003, is all about the science. He lends the company plenty of scientific street cred; he made some of the key early findings about brain plasticity, helped pioneer cochlear ear implants, and developed well-regarded training programs for children with learning disabilities. He says his $395 Brain Fitness program is grounded in hard data.
This summer Posit released two studies that Merzenich says prove its worth. One, involving 182 healthy people 60 and over, assigned half the group to Posit’s brain exercises for eight weeks. The rest were asked only to watch educational DVDs. The researchers found that 93% of the Brain Fitness group significantly improved their memory function, while the control group did not.
In a second study released this summer, Posit’s program was tried on 45 people diagnosed with MCI. PET scans of the brains of 15 participants were taken before and after the study. There was some evidence of memory gains in the Brain Fitness group, and the PET scans revealed a decline in brain activity in those who did not use the brain exercises. Brain activity held steady for the rest. “We’ve seen 80-year-old people improve from being sluggish and slow to having the mental performance level of a 35-year-old,” says Merzenich.
Whether these people will be able to stave off further cognitive decline remains to be proven. Salthouse, at the end of his paper debunking such efforts, wrote that there’s no harm in trying. Even if there is no beneficial evidence, he wrote, engagement in such mentally demanding activities at least serves as proof of existence: “If you can still do it, then you know that you have not yet lost it.”