November 27, 2006
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Harry Jackson Jr.

Charles and Mona Jones have lived a prosperous and event-filled life together. They met, then married more than 30 years ago while both were engineers at McDonnell Douglas. He designed aircraft; she made sure the aircraft worked.

They retired together in the mid-1980s before McDonnell became Boeing.

For 10 years, they bounced around Europe, crisscrossed the United States in their private airplane, visited their half-dozen children and enjoyed their leisure years.

But age started to catch up. While both stayed generally healthy, Charles picked up a few maladies, not the least of which was restless leg syndrome, a nerve disorder that causes one or both legs to shake uncontrollably.

They both experienced less precision with their memories and thoughts. Not dementia, just what scientists call diminished cognitive condition — a fancy name for becoming absent-minded and forgetful as you age. It was gradual, almost unnoticeable.

Mona noticed that Charles, normally talkative and gregarious, slowly quieted. She became the talkative half of the couple.

And she found herself easily distracted during household tasks.

“I’d want to change a light bulb, and I’d go and get the bulb and end up doing 10 other things — straighten up this or take a bite of cashew nuts. Then I’d have to stop and think, ‘What was I supposed to be doing?'”‰ ” she says, laughing.

Charles, though, risked another danger. He sometimes forgot his medicine, which he must take precisely at the same time every day. It’s a drug used for Parkinson’s disease, which is in the same family as restless leg syndrome. Fifteen minutes late, and he risks a shaking leg that goes away only after a half-hour of pacing.

A lucky move
Three years ago, the Joneses moved into an assisted-living center in St. Charles called Fairwinds — River’s Edge. They met Margaret Guilford, a trainer for a new program to help older people retain mental precision. She gets residents started and gives tips on using the computer.

The program, called “Brain Fitness,” was designed by people who think the brain doesn’t have to get old. They believe that no matter what the age, the brain can be strengthened. With the proper exercise, it can rebuild its connections or never slow down.

“The science studies neuroplasticity,” says Peggy Jara, communications director for Posit Science, the company that developed the brain fitness program.

“It used to be that scientists believed the brain was hard-wired at birth, and that was it,” she adds. “But that’s not the facts.”

Charles and Mona had read about ways to compensate for memory loss: Take notes; repeat people’s names; put your keys in the same place every day so that you don’t forget where you put them.

“This program helps you remember where you left the keys,” Charles says.

Guilford had already trained the first group, and the graduates recruited eight more students, including Charles and Mona.

“We thought it would be beneficial to us,” Charles says. “I wasn’t sure if there was a problem, but we hoped the program would make it better.”

How it works
Recently, the Joneses demonstrated the completely computerized program.

In one exercise, the program made sounds that went up or down in two- to four-note patterns. Charles clicked buttons that followed the pattern higher or lower. The program developers say this section works brain centers that deal with hearing and understanding speech and sounds.

Mona sat at a screen that showed boxes. She clicked one, and it gave a one-syllable word. She tried to find the duplicate word hidden in the maze. She finished a six-box list, and the computer generated a 24-box list. That works the brain center that helps to develop skills such as dancing and coordination.

Those and other exercises speed up and become more complicated as the participants sharpen their abilities.

While the program costs just less than $400 on the Web, residents of the center get it for $100 a person for 40 sessions. It requires a computer with broadband Internet access. As students work, scientists in San Francisco get progress reports that help them build more exercises. More versions are due out soon.

The team has received grants from the National Institutes of Health, as well as interest from researchers.

Talkative again
Mona was the first to notice. Charles was talking more, and after a few sessions he again became the word guy in the family.

She found that when she wanted to change a light bulb, she would change a light bulb.

“And I’m reading more,” she says. “I read the Post-Dispatch, and I’ve subscribed to three magazines, Gourmet, Bon Appétit and Martha Stewart. I’m able to focus more. And I’m a better listener.”

They have started eating dinners in the pub, outside the Fairwinds dining room.

“I sip my wine and start a conversation,” she says. “My memory wasn’t so bad, but now it’s better.”

And Charles no longer forgets his medicine.