July 12, 2007
Spokane Journal of Business
Staff Reporter

Use it or lose it. That’s the message experts are giving to seniors and baby boomers regarding the importance of “exercising” the brain to fend off memory loss.

Triggered in part by research that has linked mentally stimulating activities with a decreased risk for dementia, more retirement facilities here are launching brain fitness programs.

The brain-boosting activities being offered here, typically as part of a wellness program, include computer courses, classroom work, and games like sudoku, which is a logic-based number placement puzzle.

“With your brain, like many other parts of your body, it’s use it or lose it,” says Joel Loiacono, executive director at the Alzheimer’s Association’s Inland Northwest Chapter. “Similar to how you tone your muscles, you have to tone your brain, or it can get flabby.”

The aging U.S. population has significant incentives for breaking a mental sweat. An estimated 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, he says. About 8,000 to 10,000 people in Spokane County currently have the disease, and that number is expected to jump 81 percent by 2025.

Cognitive decline with aging appears to occur because of loss of brain cells, the Alzheimer’s Association says. In contrast, mentally and physically stimulating activities strengthen nerve cells and the connections between them by increasing blood flow to the brain, the association says.

“There’s enough clinical evidence that shows these types of programs help to reduce your chances of getting dementia”, Loiacono says of brain fitness programs, adding, though, that they don’t guarantee a person won’t get dementia. “Even for people who are diagnosed, mental and physical exercise is important as far as not going so fast downhill.”

In a study published last month in the online edition of Neurology, the medical journal of the Academy of Neurology, researchers found that a cognitively active person was 2.6 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related illnesses in old age than a cognitively inactive person.

Meanwhile, early results from a study being conducted at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center show that attention-training activities targeted at older adults resulted in improved concentration and performance on tasks.

Those findings echo what seniors say they’re experiencing as a result of participating in the Brain Fitness computer program at Fairwinds-Spokane, at 520 E. Holland, says Vickie Cullen, marketing consultant at the retirement community. Cullen says that after taking part in the program, seniors tell her they’re able to do crossword puzzles more quickly, because they’re remembering more words. In addition, they’re able to be more independent and often have a more positive outlook on life, she says.

Fairwinds, which is owned by Bellevue, Wash.-based Leisure Care Inc., launched the program last fall, Cullen says. Developed by San Francisco-based Posit Science Corp., the program includes a series of exercises aimed at older adults and designed to improve listening skills, memory, and attention, she says.

Seniors at Fairwinds enroll in an eight-week course in which they participate in one-hour sessions each day, five days a week, she says. The program costs $100 for residents and $200 for non-residents.

The Brain Fitness program only requires use of a mouse, which is helpful to seniors who aren’t computer savvy, she says. One activity involves listening to a series of sounds and differentiating between high and low pitches. In another, participants read a short story, then answer questions about the story to improve reading comprehension. The program calibrates its level of difficulty to each person’s skill level, and increases the level of difficulty with each session.

In addition to computer programs like Brain Fitness, video games that aim to increase cognitive function also have emerged. For instance, Nintendo has released a game called Brain Age for its handheld videogame console that’s marketed toward adults. The game features a variety of puzzles designed to stimulate different parts of the brain. At the end of some of the activities, the game computes an “age” for the player’s brain, based on his or her performance, with higher ages indicating worse performance.

While electronic games are useful tools for getting mentally fit, classroom settings that involve teamwork also are important for maintaining seniors’ social skills, asserts Brenda Jurich, wellness director at Rockwood South, at 2903 E. 25th. Rockwood South’s Mind Aerobics class, which it started two years ago, involves simple math problems, number sequence identification, wordplay games, short-term memory games, and listening comprehension exercises, Jurich says. Some games also involve physical exercise, such as memorizing the instructor’s clapping sequence and then re-enacting it.