March 12, 2006
The Dallas Morning News
Bob Moos

If the last decade was about working your abs, the next one may be about working your lobes.

Experts predict that “brain fitness” will be the next big trend for the boomer generation, and savvy businesses are already figuring out ways to cater to 78 million Americans who want to stay mentally sharp as they grow older.

Like many other boomers, Sandi Goodman has begun joking about her “senior moments” when she forgets a name or misplaces something. “That never used to happen to me,” said the Plano grandmother, who’s 57.

To challenge her memory, she works crossword puzzles from her morning newspaper and buys paperbacks with more brainteasers.

“They’re all sort of a mental treadmill for me,” she said.

Ms. Goodman is exactly the kind of boomer consumer Nintendo has in mind for its new video game, Brain Age.

Nintendo has sold more than 2 billion video games worldwide in the last 23 years, but the Japanese company has never designed one for a generation that spent its youth buying 45 rpm Beatles records.

Brain Age is a handheld game that uses word and math puzzles to quiz and entertain. Players memorize words, count and read, and, through a series of timed drills, can determine their “brain age,” or mental agility.

Nintendo Co. created the video game after its president read a book by a prominent Japanese neuroscientist who argues that stimulating the mind can prevent or delay the mental decline normally associated with aging. Brain Age arrives in the United States on April 17 after becoming Japan’s hottest video game.

“We reached an entirely new group of video game consumers in Japan, and we expect to accomplish the same here,” said Perrin Kaplan, vice president of marketing and corporate affairs for Nintendo of America Inc.

The manufacturer’s suggested retail price for Brain Age is $19.99. The game machine to play it on costs $129.99.

Ms. Kaplan said Nintendo will tailor its marketing campaign to older consumers who have never played video games and who may feel uncomfortable or intimidated about using the new product.

“Our marketing teams will fan out and demonstrate Brain Age wherever boomers and older adults hang out – at shopping malls, senior communities and even AARP’s headquarters in Washington,” she said.

Writing the answers
Nintendo’s DS machine, when held sideways, opens like a book and has two screens. The game flashes questions on one screen, and the player uses a stylus to write answers on the other.

Marketing expert Roger Dooley predicts an unlimited market for “products that flex mental muscles” because new research suggests that “cognitive decline isn’t as inevitable as once thought.”

Boomers are the ideal audience for such sales pitches, he said, because Americans older than 50 can expect to live into their 80s, and boomers have no plans to go gently into their golden years.

“They have high expectations for the quality of their lives,” said Mr. Dooley, who publishes a blog about neuroscience and marketing. “They fully intend to make the most of the next 25 years.”

Many boomers are slimming down and toning up to stave off the ravages of advancing age, but they still worry that they won’t have an alert, active mind to go with their healthy body, he said.

Mr. Dooley said the businesses best positioned to capitalize on the “brain fitness” trend are the ones that develop products based on credible scientific research showing tangible benefits.

Though physical activity seems to slow mental decline, the effect of stimulating the mind remains unclear, said Dr. Roger N. Rosenberg, a neurology professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

“Some studies suggest a modest benefit from cognitive activity, while others do not,” he said.

Posit Science Corp., a San Francisco-based start-up company, introduced its Brain Fitness Program last summer after working with more than 50 neuroscientists and researchers worldwide.

Sharper skills
Participants seat themselves at a computer and complete exercises to sharpen their listening skills. The program is broken into 40 hourlong sessions and lasts eight weeks.

Posit Science has licensed the program to about 50 senior communities for fees ranging from $17,000 to $50,000 a year and is helping to set up “brain fitness centers” for the residents.

The company just began offering a home version for $495.

More than half of the older adults who have completed the program have shown 10 or more years’ improvement in their cognitive ability, said president and chief executive Jeff Zimman.

“Many people tell us they’re more attentive, more confident and more enthusiastic about new adventures,” he said.

Katherine Moskwin, 71, suffered “senior moments” before taking the Brain Fitness course but has since been surprised by her new ability to concentrate.

“I’m more focused than I’ve been in years,” the San Francisco resident said. “I’m able to listen more carefully, and, for whatever reason, I’m sleeping better, too.”

Dr. Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist and one of Posit Science’s founders, said his research indicates that the brain can rewire and rejuvenate itself even late in life.

Averting disease
Posit Science is collaborating with three California universities to determine whether its program might also help people with mild cognitive disorders and early Alzheimer’s disease.

The company’s brain fitness centers will be installed in Conservatory Senior Residences’ communities in Keller and Austin this spring and in Plano and the Houston area later this year.

“This program fits perfectly with what we’re doing – helping residents remain healthy and mentally sharp,” said Jonathan Perlman, a partner in the Dallas-based senior living company.

Mental fitness also promises to become its own genre among self-help books and workshops.

“More and more authors are jumping into the fray, debunking the myths of old age and telling readers that you can teach old brains new tricks,” said Mr. Dooley, the marketing expert.

Wendy Thompson, a co-author of Mental Fitness for Life with Sandra Cusack, could be a poster child for brain fitness.

“I’m living what I’ve urged my readers to do,” she said.

She spent the first years of her life as a speed skater, representing Canada at the 1968 Winter Olympics. Now 60, the gerontologist is rigorously exercising her mind.

Her book offers her graying boomer generation a set of rules for staying mentally active: Think positively. Take up hobbies. Play games. Write. Read. Talk with people. And, above all, listen.

“Barring illness, you’re not destined to lose your mind as you grow older,” she said. “The brain is just like a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger you’ll be.”