February 27, 2007
The Denver Post
Will Shanley

Gordon Hill noticed a few frustrating changes in his 70s. He started having trouble hearing and often forgot people’s names within minutes of meeting them. He ended up moving from his Florida home to a retirement community in Denver, near family.

Hill says he is hopeful that he can halt, or even reverse, his memory decline. Three weeks ago, Hill began taking part in a computer-based program called Brain Fitness, which was recently introduced at two metro-area retirement homes.

Program users perform hundreds of mental tasks – five days a week for eight weeks – including exercises that test hearing and memory. The commercial version retails for $395.

“I know it will help, but I don’t know how much,” said

Hill, 80, a resident at the Harvard Square Retirement Community in Denver. “I hope it will improve my memory.”

A host of companies are aiming to capitalize on such hopes, rolling out a variety of products online and in stores that claim to help people exercise their brains. Video-game makers such as Nintendo and Mattel have introduced games that focus on mental tasks.

“New findings show that we produce new brain cells right to the end” of life, said Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “Challenging your mind does have a positive effect on the brain.”

Interest in such products is being prompted by aging Americans.

“By 2030, it is projected that one in five people will be age 65 or older,” according to the Alliance for Aging Research.

There are currently 4.5 million people in the U.S. with Alzheimer’s disease – a number that is expected to grow to as many as 16 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The market for “consumer-electronic-based therapeutic and well-being products” – which includes memory aids – is expected to grow by 20 percent per year, reaching about $4 billion worldwide by 2010, according to a recent report by Research and Markets, a Dublin, Ireland-based researcher.

Cohen said consumers should look for products that offer a variety of tasks, including ones that require users to refine their auditory, visual and memory abilities.

“The products may have something that looks engaging, but does it provide a sustained challenge?” Cohen said.

He said the Brain Fitness program, which is used at Harvard Square, has been rigorously tested by independent researchers.

Retirement communities nationwide are introducing such cognitive-fitness programs. The program at Harvard Square, which is owned by Seattle-based Leisure Care, was developed by San Francisco-based Posit Science and is covered by some insurance packages offered by Humana.

Jeff Zimman, chief executive of Posit Science, said his company’s products improve memory by 10 years on average, according to a company-funded study published last year in a peer-reviewed journal.

Zimman said the gains recorded in the study held for at least 90 days after users completed the program.

In Colorado, Lone Tree-based Memory Lane sells a variety of videos, CDs and scrapbooks, targeting people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The videos retail for about $20.

The products are “based on established therapeutic strategies … (that) provide relief, stimulation and connection for people with memory loss and their caregivers,” according to the company’s website, memorylanemedia.com.

Memory Lane was founded in 2004 by Julie Aigner-Clark, the woman behind the wildly popular Baby Einstein line of videos and products.

Cohen said products such as those sold by Memory Lane are useful in helping care for people with dementia but have not been shown to improve memory or mental ability.

Jeff Mettais, president of Memory Lane, said the company’s products are “research-supported, not research-based.”

“We have never asserted that (our products) can delay or reverse Alzheimer’s,” he said. “We provide relief, stimulation and connection for people with dementia and their caregivers.”