April 30, 2008
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Gary Rotstein

Frank Walsh, a retired civil engineer on the cusp of 90, has experienced decline in his legs, eyesight and hearing.

It’s hard for the assisted-living resident at Country Meadows in Bridgeville to stop some of that. He works to maintain his still-sharp mind, however, by doing crossword puzzles. He also took an eight-week course called Brain Fitness on a computer at Country Meadows, and he wants to try something similar again.

“Memory is not a permanent thing, and I think I probably by now lost everything I gained,” he said from a wheelchair in the facility’s activities room. “I know I can’t remember today what I learned six months ago. I don’t have that instant recall.”

Brain Fitness, an audio-oriented software program by Posit Science, is just one of a wide inventory of products to flood the market in recent years for purposes of stimulating the brain and enhancing memory.

Some are downloaded onto computers, and others played as hand-held devices. Some emphasize listening skills, and others stress visual cues or numbers, reading or problem-solving abilities. Some might be marketed toward baby boomers, others more widely used by elderly retirees trying to preserve what’s left of their abilities. There’s also a big price difference, from as little as $20 to hundreds of dollars.

One thing such games don’t do is prevent Alzheimer’s disease, according to researchers and geriatricians. But just like crossword puzzles, card games and other activities using the brain — even bingo — they’re better than television or nothing in keeping the brain active in ways that assist memory retention.

Such brain games can help maintain a healthy lifestyle for an older adult in the same way that physical exercise is recommended to slow natural decline. People who want a balanced, productive life in later years ought to exercise both body and mind, in addition to getting sufficient sleep, socializing, eating nutritiously and getting regular checkups, according to the American Geriatrics Society.

Dr. Stephanie Studenski, a geriatrician and University of Pittsburgh professor of medicine, said observational studies — rather than hard evidence — suggest older people have fewer problems as they age if they’ve engaged in leisure-time cognitive activities. That should also hold true for Brain Fitness and its counterparts, so long as people don’t expect miraculous turnarounds.

“As far as I know, the large majority of the commercial products out there have no formal scientific evaluation of any kind,” she said, “but if you enjoy playing the game, then why not? … I don’t think there’s any harm to it, but I also don’t think it has the same kind of proof behind it as taking a medication.”

Among the other devices, software programs and membership Web sites through which people access games are Luminosity by Lumos Labs, Brain Age by Nintendo, MindFit by Cognifit, [m]Power by Dakim and happy-neuron.com. By pressing buttons, clicking mouses or typing on keyboards, users practice skills of the kind that might have been useful on the “Concentration” game show or for other mental tests.

Typically, different skill levels allow players to adjust according to their abilities. In more sophisticated systems like Brain Fitness, the computer will do those calibrations itself in order to challenge the user to progress and work harder.

Dr. Gary Small, a professor and director of the UCLA Memory & Aging Center, has his photo and endorsement on the store-bought Radica Brain Games devices, which are the size of a hand and run on AAA batteries. He has also been a consultant for the [m]Power line.

He said some basis for such games was established by research in the 1990s showing that when people used them regularly, their brains had to do less work. Brain scans reflected less activity as exercises were repeated, showing the mind was working more efficiently.

“It’s just like going to a gym and building up the body,” Dr. Small said. “Even in a few weeks, we can see changes in brain neurocircuitry, as people have better memory skills.”

While some studies have suggested Alzheimer’s comes later to people who have done a lot of crossword puzzles or mentally stimulating activities, there’s been no cause-and-effect evidence of the connection, Dr. Small said. Still, he said, people who care about memory can show improvement.

The Brain Games packaging promotes it for “ages 8 and up,” but children’s baby boomer parents and grandparents are the more likely targets. “When we get older, we’re more aware of memory changes and more interested in doing something about it,” Dr. Small noted.

That’s the reason long-term care facilities, rather than elementary schools, are the ones purchasing such products.

Redstone Highlands in Murrysville invested $8,500 in the initial cost of [m]Power, in order to provide it for free use by 20 residents among its 150 in assisted living and independent apartments. Participants don’t need computer experience to play — they can just tap images on the monitor, participating at any of five skill levels.

Judy Barry, 68, and her roommate have been playing 20 minutes a day, five days a week, supplementing the walking and card-playing and reading and writing and puzzle games they already do at Redstone Highlands.

“We’re leading an active retirement with experiences we hope keep our minds alert,” Ms. Barry said. “My memory is there now, and I’m trying to maintain it. Hopefully, it’s always going to be there with me. … We all want to improve, or at least maintain, the abilities we have.”

Country Meadows has provided the Brain Fitness program through computers on 11 campuses, including the one in Bridgeville. It was charging about 250 residents up to $200 to take a daily, eight-week course last year to recoup some of its $125,000 software investment, but this year has eliminated the fees.

“We know it’s the wave of the future, that baby boomers aren’t going to be content with the usual bingo,” said Sandy Strathmeyer of Country Meadows, project manager for its Posit Science program. “We’re always looking for new and stimulating and invigorating activities … and this will keep challenging you and upping the ante and making you work harder.”

An advantage for its older clientele is that no real computer background is needed, which was good in Mr. Walsh’s case, since he had none and had no real desire to learn at his age. And now that many of those interested have tried an audio version of Brain Fitness, Country Meadows has purchased a new sister program called InSight, emphasizing visual information.

It’s so new that the course has not yet been scheduled in Bridgeville, but it’s the kind of addition that Mr. Walsh and others might deem appealing in their quest to stay sharp.

“I think the aging process affects all of us,” the octogenarian said, “whether we want to admit it or not.”