January 9, 2007
The Today Show
Janice Lieberman

I am in my 40s, but I would like to look like I am in my 30s. So I try to eat well and work out to keep my body in shape, but what about my mental acuity? Recently I started thinking that I need to exercise my mind, if I’m going to keep up at the office and in life. If you are like me, you are the perfect target for a new generation of games that promise to make your brain sharper.

Nintendo is banking on baby boomers playing Brain Age, a hand-held game that makes you react quickly to easy math questions or other visual tests. In less than a minute, the device will calculate just how young or old your gray matter really is. Let me tell you, the game, which with all the parts you need runs about $150, is addictive. On my first try, it told me that I had the brain age of a 70-year-old. After a few more times, I now have the brain of an active 40-year-old. It’s definitely fun, but can Brain Age really make me sharper or help me ward off Alzheimer’s?

Dr. Orrin Devinsky, a professor of neurology at New York University in New York City, doesn’t think so. “I think playing video games and interactive ones is fine,” he says. “In the general category of things that keep you active and keep you busy and involved in the world, they are good, but they may be no better than watching an educational show on TV. They may be no better than interacting and having political or religious discussions with your friends. So the answer is we don’t know; there’s just not enough scientific evidence at this point to be definitive.”

Don’t tell that to Posit Science, which produces software to enhance your brain power. The San Francisco-based company’s researchers say that they have data to prove your noodle will improve by playing their computer-based games. “We see people who start with the average memory performance of people at their age,” says Henry Mahncke, Posit Science’s vice president of research. “And on average, when they’re done, they have the memory performance of people who are 10 years younger than they are.” In fact, Humana, one of the country’s largest HMOs, offers Posit Science’s programs free to its members. Non-members have to pay around $400.

If that’s too much for your budget, check out some Web sites offering mentally challenging exercises. Happy Neuron claims its brain games are “scientifically developed to keep our brains fit.” A monthly subscription to Happy Neuron costs $9.95 a month. A four-month subscription to MyBrainTrainer will run you just $9.95. If you want to try these Internet games and don’t want to pay, they do offer free trials. But here’s a real cheapie: Your Sunday newspaper’s crossword puzzle.

Janice Lieberman’s Bottom Line: Keep your brain active any way you can. “I think if I could counsel an older adult on what’s good, I would tell them to stay physically active and to stay mentally active and do the things they enjoy,” says Dr. Devinsky. Those are the activities that “they’re likely to continue.”