Glenys Dyer, 82, is drawing Queen Elizabeth on the tiny screen of her Nintendo video game player. Suddenly her instructor — a cartoon figure on the screen — tells her to shift gears and draw a picture of herself, then read a passage from a novel aloud.
“Our children gave this game to us,” explains her husband, John Dyer, 83, as he watches his wife do her daily Nintendo “Brain Age” exercises. “The concept is to help the brain with rapid calculation and rapid reading.”
The Dyers, who live in the Goodwin House retirement community in Alexandria, are part of a brain health movement sweeping such communities nationwide.
Much as physical fitness buffs hit the gym daily, seniors are doing brain exercises to tone their minds. The theory — so far with little hard science behind it — is that mental stimulation slows memory loss and other cognitive declines associated with aging.
Encouraged by research suggesting the brain can sprout new cells and rewire existing ones late in life, senior communities are supplementing their usual lineup of bingo and art classes with new video games, Sudoku puzzles and computer activities.
“My view is if it doesn’t do any harm, we’ve got to try it,” says John Dyer, a retired nuclear engineer. “My grandmother and mother both had dementia.”
In addition to their Brain Age game, the Dyers stretch their brains with several computer programs, including one called Brain Fitness that Goodwin House offers all 400 of its residents. More than 100 other retirement communities nationwide offer the software developed by neuroscientists in California, who say it improves memory by teaching the brain to interpret sounds faster and more accurately.
Over in Bowie, residents of the HeartFields Assisted Living Center are doing giant crossword puzzles together and playing virtual bowling on the Nintendo Wii, a video game that administrators hope will challenge residents’ visual and motor skills.
“In the past year we have made a big push to get the mind working, not just stimulated, but actively working on topics,” said Leslie Ray, the center’s executive director. “That’s because research is showing that keeping your brain powered up fights Alzheimer’s disease.”
At the senior center in Annapolis, elders have participated in a collaborative Keep Your Mind Alert class and taken classes in Spanish, opera appreciation and Civil War commanders.
“We are offering more and more activities to keep the mind alert,” says Becky Batta, the center’s director. “The baby boomers are coming and they demand it. They are completely different from other generations of seniors.”
Scientists seem to agree that at least four activities can defend the brain against age and disease — eating fresh fruits and vegetables, doing regular aerobic exercise, performing challenging mental tasks and engaging in social pursuits.
The Alzheimer’s Association has promoted all four in the 5,000 Maintain Your Brain workshops it has conducted over the past three years at senior centers and corporate workplaces, including Lockheed Martin and Apple.
Physical exercise and so-called brain food have long been regarded as good for mental health — exercise because it boosts blood circulation and gives the brain more oxygen; and foods rich in antioxidants, such as fish, fruits and vegetables, because the antioxidants attack cell-destroying agents.
But more recent attention is being focused on brain exercise because neuroscientists have been making fresh discoveries as baby boomers, worried about approaching old age, watch closely.
In fact, baby boomers may be the biggest catalyst of the brain-fitness boom. They started turning 60, and the nation’s over-65 population will double between 2000 and 2030 — from 35 million to 72 million people. That forecast has triggered an entrepreneurial rush to supply them with anti-aging products.
But retirement communities are not the only market for brain exercise. A growing body of research suggests that mental activity in middle age and earlier can help later in life. As a result, Web sites such as HappyNeuron.com are springing up to offer online games to people of all ages, while blogs like SharpBrains.com provide commentary on the fledgling industry.
“No technology trend in fitness has gotten more media attention than cognition training,” said Andrew Carle, a George Mason University professor who studies brain-training products. “What’s driving it is the jump we are seeing in Alzheimer’s, which is an age-related disease.”
More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, in which a large number of the brain’s 200 billion nerve cells degrade and die. The Alzheimer’s population is projected to jump to 7.7 million Americans by 2030, by the time the last of the baby boomers have reached 65.
Brain decay actually is wider, because all human brains lose nerve cells as they age. Brain neurons typically start dying when people are in their 20s, a loss that accelerates an