April 9, 2007
LA Daily News
Evan Henerson

The residents gathered for a celebratory barbecue at Leisure Care’s Fairwinds senior facility are more than just neighbors at the West Hills complex.

They’re veteran workout partners, having each completed 40 hours of a novel new fitness program.

Never mind weight loss or calorie counting — the “enemy” in the drills these folks undertake is dementia.

Designed by Posit Science, the workout is called Brain Fitness. The exercises are done via computer, and the participants wear snug-fitting headsets.

Posit claims the program can roll back the clock on memory degeneration by 10 years or more. Participants like the camaraderie it generates.

“You’re sort of looking for everybody as you come in,” says Mary Grogman, 84, who went through Leisure Care’s Brain Fitness program once and then co-coached it for other residents a second time.

“We’d see each other every day, and we became better friends,” says Gloria Harrar, 79. “You start looking for each other in an abstract sort of way. It’s nice to see everybody together again like this.”

Posit’s Brain Fitness and other similar programs such as Dakim’s [m]Power are designed to give users a concentrated mental workout. It’s the “use it or lose it” principal: the more creative stimulation you get, the longer your brain is apt to stay sharp and even potentially “rewire” itself via neuroplasticity.

Academic knowledge won’t necessarily help, but learning a new language or picking up a musical instrument will. The same holds true for taking a walk around your neighborhood and finding new routes to get yourself home, says Dr. Henry Mahncke, vice president of research and outcomes for Posit Science.

Mahncke points to the 2003 Bronx Aging Study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which concluded that leisure activities among the elderly could have an effect in staving off dementia.

“They saw that people who engaged in cognitively stimulating activities had a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s,” Mahncke explains. “Everyone thinks it’s common sense, but then those studies came out for neurologists. OK, now there’s a meaningful body of evidence that supports the theory that something like this is true.”

This school of thought accounts for the heavily booked Brain Fitness stations at Leisure Care, and explains why residents like Harrar and Grogman are pointing and clicking their way around a screen, distinguishing between sounds pitches, answering reading comprehension questions or playing a matching game.

“The brain sort of sets in certain ways, and this opens up a whole new area,” says George Winston, 93. “It’s very stimulating, and it brings back lots of memories.”

Another cognitive workout, Dakim’s [m]Power, launched at Pasadena’s Villa Gardens and is now in more than 30 senior residences throughout the country.

[m]Power dispenses with the keyboard and the mouse. Players touch the screens to answer questions, which skew more toward reviewing historical facts, watching old movie clips and playing word games.

Both programs have multiple levels that automatically adjust themselves to match an individual player’s ability. Researchers maintain that seniors won’t push themselves to continue a workout if they become frustrated at not getting results. There is no way to exhaust the programs since new data is constantly being added.

“We don’t teach memory tricks,” says Dakim CEO Dan Michel. “People want to do well. The point is not just doing cognitive exercises. We want to make it so much fun that people see this is a good thing. It’s like 20 minutes of going to the gym. You work out really hard, and then you don’t have to worry about it for the rest of the day.”

On a recent Thursday afternoon at Villa Gardens, 92-year-old Paul Peters spends 20 minutes getting his cerebral workout, screen touching his way across the program’s questions, occasionally clucking in bewilderment when something stumps him.

“I like the movies and the literature. I’m not too good on the math,” says Peters, who [m]Powers himself two or three times per week. “It jogs your memory. I didn’t necessarily do too well right off, but I did better as time went on.”

“Doing well” isn’t necessarily key since participants aren’t scored. A better gauge of the program’s success than percentages of questions answered correctly is a player proceeding from the computer to a social activity or to chatting up a new acquaintance.

Since introducing Brain Fitness, Sharon Lefferts, senior director of health and wellness at Leisure Care, has observed once withdrawn residents rejoining social and family gatherings. She attributes the change to Brain Fitness’s ability to refocus users in the art of conversation.

“It’s not about wanting to increase IQs. …It’s being able to participate in a game or a conversation, to feel that comfort level. It’s assisted lots of our residents to re-engage in life,” Lefferts says.

“One of the sad things about a place like this is that people isolate themselves,” adds Dakim’s Michel. “Hopefully people will finish here and say, ‘Oh, I think I’ll go play bridge now.’ Or, ‘I’m going to go talk to that guy.'”

It’s Michel who the [m]Power players see on their screens greeting them and signing off at the end. As he walks through the lobby at Villa Gardens, residents recognize him as “the [m]Power man.”

The CEO, whose background is entertainment marketing, became inspired to enter the world of cognitive fitness after watching his father battle Alzheimer’s. He found a more than sympathetic ear in geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Gary Small of UCLA’s Center on Aging, now Dakim’s chief scientific advisor. Small has licensed his own Senior Memory Training courses and developed a hand-held computer titled Brain Games.

“Playing a musical instrument is great. Learning a new language is great,” says Michel. “This doesn’t replace any of that stuff.”