December 21, 2006
Boomers Blog
Brent Green

When The Wall Street Journal called me in November, I couldn’t resist an unexpected invitation. Writer Kelly Greene asked me to join several others to test a number of new software and online products focused on training the aging brain.

And why wouldn’t I jump at this chance? We tested some of the most popular products in the category, including those developed by Posit Science and Nintendo. My fellow brain trainers included Paul Nussbaum, clinical neuropsychologist and adjunct associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; William Thomas, M.D., geriatrician, author of What Are Old People For?: How Elders Will Save The World, and founder of the Eden Alternative; and Colin Milner, chief executive of the International Council of Active Aging.

Brain training via on-line services and computer software presents a Boomer generation solution to the age-old problem of late-life mental decline. Cognitive exercises point to a possible fitness fad that may eventually have wide appeal.

That’s partly because youthful Boomer culture mythologized individualism. “Do your own thing” meant becoming self-reliant and self-aware. The generation then popularized transcendence through a consciousness revolution. Boomers have always been seekers of personal development.

Today, self-reliance demands mental keenness. To successfully thrive in a knowledge-based economy, learning and adaptation are essential to development, even survival. Thus, Boomers are contributing to a veritable explosion in continuing education, cultural tourism and spiritual self-improvement.

It’s in the Boomer DNA to thrive, more than just survive. If thriving means retraining the brain, then bring it on.

Brain-training software and websites also appeal to the generation’s penchant for integrated fitness solutions. For example, Boomers gravitate to full-service fitness facilities offering whole-body capabilities: weight training, aerobics, yoga, spinning, meditation and stretching.

Comparatively, brain trainees can get complete mental workouts on their laptops, on easily available websites or even via a pocket-sized Nintendo DS.

There are downsides to some products I tested. Some of these products purport to measure your brain age after you take a couple of short tests.

During the first trial, one product alarmed me with the unqualified news that my brain age is 74! Another initially scored my brain age as 63. One explanation: I have the type of personality that focuses on accuracy more than speed. However, I repeated these tests and eventually achieved scores of 42 on both products. Then, by the second day, I achieved a brain-age score of 27. (I’ll keep this score and throw out the others.)

As you may recall from college statistics, validity is the degree to which an observed result reflects exactly what is being measured. Reliability is the consistency of a set of measurements or measuring instrument.

Reliability does not imply validity. A reliable test is measuring something consistently, but not necessarily what it is supposed to be measuring. For example, even if brain-age assessments are reliable, which, in my case, they are not, a reliable test will not necessarily predict my true brain age.

Both brain-age assessments failed to achieve a basic statistical benchmark: test / retest reliability. When an assessment test fails to achieve reliable repeat performance (even allowing some for learning), and, quite the contrary, proposes widely varying scores in a short period, then it’s reasonable to question test validity.

More bluntly: defining brain age though a self-administered test is irresponsible. Tests designed to determine brain age are short in duration, encumbered by the technology used to administer them, not supervised for control of extraneous environmental factors, and assess only a tiny sample of behavior on which to draw such sweeping and potentially demoralizing conclusions.

Controversy has followed psychological testing since widespread adoption in the early twentieth century. Prudent people have learned to be cautious about reading too much into a single test or measurement approach. A two-minute sample of behavior does not complete the picture of a person.

Appealing to fear or loss can be a motivator to consume, but this is hardly upbeat or the best message strategy for Boomers. Dr. Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology and director of the Life-Span Institute at Stanford University, who I worked with at a futuristic “think tank” earlier in December, has determined through neuroanatomical imaging studies that older adults filter out negative messages in preference for positive material.

If the initial brain-training market is the Boomer sub-segment with a predisposition to pursue health & fitness — so-called fitness early adopters — then focusing on their subconscious fears about cognitive decline neglects significant motivational opportunities.

More powerful and optimistic appeals could include addressing deeply seated motivations to pursue their passions in middle age and beyond, whether those dreams include adventure travel, additional education, another career path or entrepreneurial activity.

Cognitive fitness in this context isn’t restorative. Brain training becomes a means to achieving dreams and greater life satisfaction. This is the same as appealing to Boomers’ predisposition to stay physically fit in order to have more energy.

After playing with products for several weeks, I have decided to include brain training as part of my fitness regimen. The only remaining question for me is which product to select of the choices offered me. But I’m a Boomer; I like choices. And it’s valuable brain training to make them.