December 1, 2007
Good Housekeeping
Sari Harrar

I fear I may be hurtling into the brain-fog years. In a single weekend, I forget the name of a woman I see regularly at our children’s parties, misplace an important financial document, and have trouble identifying a favorite shrub that’s burst into bloom along my walking route. “Look at that…oh…um…er…bushy thing…you know…the rhododendron!” I say to my walking buddy. “You’re good,” Carol answers. “I wouldn’t have gotten rhododendron. I’d have just called it a rhubarb.”

Blame stress. Crazy-busy multitasking. Lack of sleep. But that’s not the whole story. In interviews with a half-dozen researchers, I learn that every passing birthday brings age-related brain changes that play a growing role in slowed information processing, memory lapses, and all-around fuzzier thinking.

“The decline you’re noticing is real — and it starts before age 30,” says Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a professor in the Keck Center for Integrative Neurosciences at the University of California at San Francisco. “A 60-year-old brain takes in information two to three times slower than a 20-year-old brain. As a result, what’s stored in memory is two to three times less clear and detailed. And by age 80, you may be five to eight times slower. That’s a big difference!”

The good news? Old brains can learn new tricks. “We used to think that with age, brain cells shriveled up, died, and that was that,” says Paul Laurienti, M.D., Ph.D., a brain researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. “Now we know that even older brains can grow new, stronger connections.”

In a 2007 study that scanned the brains of 23 elderly people, Dr. Laurienti found that those who’d gone through a brain-training program were better able to focus — a plus because aging brains become more distractible. Growing evidence suggests that a lifetime spent using your noodle — in your day job as an astrophysicist or mom, or after hours playing Monopoly, tooting the clarinet in your local chamber group, or doing crossword puzzles — may build extra brain connections (a kind of mental savings account called cognitive reserve) and slow the symptoms of dementia.

Banking on this research, dozens of brain-training books, computer games, and Websites have hit the market — all promising to make your brain friskier and maybe even ward off big mental threats like Alzheimer’s. Do these programs work? The jury’s still out, though company-sponsored studies suggest they may.

There are two key requirements: You must do the exercises consistently. And they shouldn’t be too easy. “Brain training is analogous to physical workouts,” says brain researcher Sherry L. Willis, Ph.D., a professor in the department of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University. “You have to cross train — work different parts of your brain and keep adding new challenges.”

In an unscientific experiment, I test-drove five top-selling brain boosters to see which ones I could stick with for the months — or years — the researchers say are necessary to preserve and improve brainpower. My criteria: Was there science to back a product’s claims? Was the program challenging enough to hold my interest? Fun enough to make me want to play it again and again? Here’s what I found.

Brain Fitness Program

The game: Drawing on research from leading neuroscientists, the Posit Science Brain Fitness Program 2.0 consists of progressively trickier listening exercises. The program comes with headphones — essential for these audio games since you need to distinguish nearly identical sounds (bu and du, for example, or doe and toe). You can adjust the headphones for volume. Suggested playtime: At least 15 minutes a day; for maximum benefit, the company recommends that you complete 40 hours in three months.

The claim: Retraining the brain to hear information will boost memory storage and recall.

The evidence: In a company-sponsored study of 182 older people, nearly all (93 percent) of those who followed the program for eight weeks increased their mental-processing speed. Earlier research showed that the program improves memory by an average of 10 years.

Play-by-play: Brain Fitness feels like strength training — slow and highly focused. As you work on distinguishing sounds, a graphic on the bottom half of the screen gradually develops into a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge or Paris or Easter Island or other scenic spot.

Score: * * * * 1/2

Somehow, the combination of ear training and soothing graphics makes me want to keep going. I like the clear explanations of each task’s benefits and the page that charts my advancement. I’m left believing that my brain is getting into shape, a payoff that makes the high cost of this game seem justifiable.

Cost: $395 for a DVD; $495 for two users (

Keep Your Brain Alive

The game: This book, by Duke University neurobiology professor Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D., and Manning Rubin, outlines 83 “neurobic” exercises — brain aerobics that use the five senses in unusual ways. Examples: brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand or turning the photographs on your desk upside down. Suggested playtime: Daily (though the program doesn’t take much extra time since you are simply doing the same everyday things in a different way).

The claim: Neurobics stimulate nerve cells in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex, the areas of the brain that are responsible for memory and abstract thought.

The evidence: The book cites research from several universities showing that active brain cells produce higher levels of chemicals called neurotrophins — a sort of Miracle-Gro that encourages brain cells to create more nerve-to-nerve connections.

Play-by-play: I brush my teeth as a southpaw — it’s slow and messy but fun. Inspired, I wash my face with my left hand and promptly drop the washcloth. Next, I flip the photos on my desk and find myself looking at the images with fresh eyes. (Why is my husband dangling upside down in the sky?)

Score: * * * *

Jolted out of autopilot mode, I feel invigorated. I could do neurobics every day.

Cost: $9 (Workman Publishing;

Happy Neuron

The game: This consists of a series of 28 different computer-game exercises focusing on a number of brain functions, including memory, attention, language, visual/spatial skills, and logic. In one, I have to rebuild a fancy medieval shield as fast as possible; others have me retrace my on-screen route through one of the world’s great cities, or match animal sounds with the right photo. Suggested playtime: 20 minutes, three times a week.

The claim: Happy Neuron’s developers, a team of French neuroscientists and computer engineers, say that cross training builds and maintains critical thinking skills.

The evidence: In a pilot study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and carried out in Des Moines, IA, 10 people with memory problems showed “significant improvement in cognitive skills” after playing Happy Neuron three times a week for six months. But the volunteers also undertook other lifestyle changes — they exercised, went on a healthy diet, and engaged in lots of social interaction — so it’s impossible to know for sure what caused the improvement.

Play-by-play: An online coach nudges me toward games that work weaker skills. For example, after viewing the medieval shield, I have to play a language game — alphabetizing a long list of words — before I get to choose the right colors, shapes, and designs to reconstruct the shield. Other games are surprisingly difficult: I can’t match every animal sound with the correct photo in the deceptively cute Squeaking Mouse. (Who knew porcupines and lemurs sounded so much alike?)

Score: * * * 1/2

While I love the mix of games and the customized program that tracks my performance, I find the exercises frustrating, especially at the beginning. But someone who really likes computer games might enjoy these colorful, varied exercises.

Cost: Online subscription: $10 per month or $100 per year; free trial available (


The game: Developed by Israeli psychologist Shlomo Breznitz, Ph.D., MindFit is designed to boost cognitive skills, including short-term memory, reaction times, recall, and eye-hand coordination. The program measures my abilities in three extensive evaluation sessions, presents games based on my needs, then monitors my performance and adjusts the difficulty level accordingly. Suggested playtime: 24 sessions to be played for 20 minutes three times a week over several months.

The claim: This “brain gym” trains 14 mental abilities, boosting cognitive reserve and preventing age-related mental decline.

The evidence: In a company-sponsored study of 121 women and men ages 50 and up, those who played MindFit three times a week for three months had “greater improvement in the cognitive domains of spatial short-term memory, visual-spatial learning, and focused attention” than study volunteers who played ordinary computer games.

Play-by-play: The evaluation sessions are real work: For example, I use my mouse to follow a little ball through a maze, estimate the length of time an image is displayed on a tiny TV screen, and choose the larger of two numbers that appear in distractingly tiny or huge boxes.

Score: * * 1/2

I like the audio instructions and the fact that the program is custom-tailored to my needs. But I’m not engaged by the tasks — guessing the correct order of little shuttered windows that open and close is boring, even when I miss a few. I don’t think I’d stick with this one.

Cost: $149 for a CD (

Brain Age

The game: Load the wildly popular Brain Age into a Nintendo DS (if you can yank the console away from your kid!), and you’ll find a series of math games, literature excerpts to read aloud, and a classic brain twister: saying the color of letters on-screen, even if they spell the name of a different color. The most portable and multimedia-driven of the computerized games I tested, Brain Age uses voice recognition and allows you to write math answers directly on the touch pad with a special stylus.

The claim: Daily practice can lower your personal Brain Age, which is determined by a pretest that places you somewhere between 20 and 80.

The evidence: Brain Age was inspired by the work of Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, M.D., whose research has shown that reading aloud and doing math problems may help activate the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Dubbed “your brain’s control tower” by Nintendo, this region is the foundation of creativity, communication, memory, and self-control.

Play-by-play: I appreciate the freedom to use Brain Age anywhere. And it’s fun seeing my speed assessed on a graphic scale ranging from “walking” to “rocket ship.” I like the multimedia aspect, too. But the software sometimes falters. During a timed test, the voice-recognition system repeatedly misunderstands the word “blue”: It keeps giving me instructions on how to speak more clearly, forcing me to start over several times and thus wrecking my score. And the device often misinterprets my scribbled answers to math questions. Such delays and misunderstandings lead the program to place my personal brain age at a geezerly 66 years (ouch!). And a game that requires me to memorize 30 words, then write them down, seems like all work, no play.

Score: * * 1/2

If you love video games, this might be the program for you. But I grew tired of the tinny music and the cartoony revolving head (that of Dr. Kawashima). Then again, Brain Age may not be aimed at my demographic: A 19-year-old computer-science student and a 38-year-old neuroscientist both raved about it.

Cost: $20 for the Nintendo game card; $130 for the Nintendo DS system that plays it.

Food for Thought

* Fish. People who have higher blood levels of DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid found in cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel) cut their dementia risk by 47 percent, compared to those with the lowest levels, reported a 2006 Tufts University study of just under 900 older women and men. Eating fish three times a week led to the highest DHA levels. And a 2006 Swedish study found that taking fish oil capsules can cut the rate of mental decline in people with mild Alzheimer’s, though it’s not clear whether the supplements can head off cognitive decline as well.
* Beans ‘n’ greens. They are rich in folic acid, a B vitamin that improved memory and information-processing speed in a 2007 study of more than 800 women and men conducted by researchers in the Netherlands.
* Fruits and veggies. A 2007 French study of 1,640 healthy women and men reported that participants who ate the most flavonoids — antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables, as well as in coffee, tea, chocolate, and wine — had the smallest drops in brain functioning over 10 years.
* Cocoa. When researchers at the University of Nottingham, England, scanned the brains of 16 women who’d just finished a cup of cocoa, they found that blood flow to some brain regions rose — and stayed high — for two to three hours. This study used a blend of cocoa that’s not available commercially, but research suggests that cocoa and other forms of dark chocolate that you can find on supermarket shelves may have similar powers.

Shape Up

* Sweat! Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found in lab studies that physical exercise is good for the brain as well as the body. Just as mental stimulation seems to, working out increases production of those neurotrophins that foster connections between brain cells.
* Keep your weight down. In a five-year study of 2,223 middle-aged women and men, French researchers found that people with high body mass indexes scored lower on memory tests and had bigger mental declines. The cause could be reduced blood flow to the brain, different researchers speculate.