October 27, 2006
Vancouver Business Journal
Neil Zawicki

Five days a week, 84-year-old Van Mall Retirement Community resident Jenny Super puts her brain through intensive calisthenics. The method? Not shuffleboard. Not a crossword or jigsaw puzzle, but a highly-developed interactive software created by a team of neurosurgeons designed to develop her thinking and memory skills by addressing the neuro-plasticity of her brain.

“I feel more confident every day,” said Super. “I’m excited.”

Super is a participant in the Hi-Fi Brain Fitness Gym – a new software launched two years ago and developed by San Francisco-based Posit Science, which puts players through an eight-week course in brain workouts. The program is the result of 30 years of neuron-scientific research, directed by Dr. Michael Merzenich and employing the knowledge of a team of neurosurgeons. It takes participants through a series of exercises ranging from sound recognition to visual comprehension. Right now, the Van Mall community is the only retirement center out of 14 in Clark County to offer the program to residents, and one of 100 communities nationwide. General Manager Denny Kartchner said the inclusion of the program gives the center a competitive edge over other retirement communities.

“It’s a very competitive environment here in the retirement community industry,” Kartchner said. “People shop around. They go to at least three or sometimes five different centers before choosing one. We hope (the brain fitness program) keeps residents here and cuts down on resident turnover.”

Kartchner said the Van Mall center invested more than $3,000 to implement the brain fitness program, setting up a classroom with five computer stations in a comfortable setting. The software, which retails for $400, is offered to the 210 Van Mall residents for $100.

Dan Madsen is Chief Executive Officer of Leisure Care – the Seattle-based company that manages the Van Mall Community and 42 others nationwide and in Canada. He said the decision to introduce the Posit Science program was born of the company’s goal of changing the way society views the aging process.

“We felt we had somewhat of a social responsibility to provide a program to promote our goals,” Madsen said. “We’re not a community where people don’t want to go, we’re a place people come to by choice.”

Leisure Care in December of 2005 signed a national contract with Posit Science, and has invested more than $100,000 to roll out the program in all of its retirement communities. While a lot of that money went toward hardware and facilities, Madsen said some went to the people that will run the program.

“We made an investment in our human capital to make sure our coaches were well trained,” he said.

The brain fitness program at Van Mall is not only available to residents; the general public is also invited to use the program.

Since introducing the program in August, 30 residents have participated in the program. In it, they go through the eight-week course with five one-hour sessions involving six different activities. Guest Services Supervisor Karen Crawford administers the sessions; she took a two-day coach’s training course from Posit Science to learn the ins and outs of the software. Crawford says she can see a definite change in the residents who use the software.

“They’re able to understand sounds better and they’re able to remember things,” Crawford said. “And I happen to be fifty, and as the administrator I use the software too, and I’m starting to notice some changes as well.”

The changes Crawford and others experience are attributed to Merzenich’s theory that the brain continues to develop well into old age.

“Our products are based on the science of neuroplasticity,” said Posit Science Vice President of Marketing Eric Mann. “It really contradicts what people used to think about the brain, that it is finished forming in childhood. Dr. Merzenich didn’t believe that. We believe that our product changes the brain chemistry.”

Mann said while the product was designed with the goal of neurological improvement, a welcome side effect has come in the form of quality of life for participants.

“We market it as something to enhance memory and overall cognition. But the people who go through the program feel better, and that has a big impact on the community as a whole,” he said.

In the Brain Fitness classroom, Van Mall resident Lois Wilson, 81, sits at a computer going through her daily session. She clicks at images on the screen and earns points for her efforts. But the simple graphics and kids’ video game feel of the program do little justice to the effect it seems to have on an aging brain. The levels of play and the format are complicated and fast-paced, even rapid-fire and maddening – so much so that even a 35-year-old journalist had difficulty completing the session.

“The levels can get really complicated,” Crawford said. “But what’s really interesting is to watch people advance over time to where the more complicated levels become simple. It can be frustrating, but it can also be addictive.”