October 15, 2007
The Los Angeles Times
Staff Reporter

Ask anyone who’s ever forgotten the name of a longtime co-worker, re-read a paragraph four times before absorbing its content, or hit the brakes too slowly to avert a fender-bender: When the mental strength and agility of youth start to slip, the wisdom of age tells you something.

You want it back.

If a method of preserving or restoring that youthful mental vigor were safe, inexpensive and as simple and diverting as playing a video game for a short while each day, wisdom would also tell you to do it.

That calculation is why mental fitness programs have become the latest frontier in the nation’s quest to age without conceding to infirmity.

The programs vary widely in format and cost, including online programs that cost $10 per month, hand-held games that can cost $140 and software packages priced at about $400. Special touch-screen consoles designed for a community’s use or specialized programs for people with conditions such as attention deficit can cost several thousand dollars.

In the last three years, these brainpower-boosting programs have proliferated, with names like MindFit, Happy Neuron, Brain Fitness and Lumosity. Americans this year are expected to invest $225 million in these programs — up from just $70 million in 2003 — in an effort to tune up the brain, strengthen the memory and forestall or reverse the cognitive slippage that often comes with age, psychiatric disease, stroke or medical treatments.

But when an industry springs up so quickly, and makes claims so sweeping and seductive, the wisdom and experience of age should tell you one more thing: Ask for evidence and expect hype.

“There is plausibility, both biological and behavioral, to the claim that these may work,” says Molly Wagster, chief of the National Institute on Aging’s neuropsychology branch. “But it is still a situation of ‘buyer beware.’ ”

Insurance companies such as Humana and Penn Treaty American Corp. have begun to distribute software programs such as Posit Science’s Brain Fitness 2.0 to millions of their older customers. In two years on the market, Nintendo’s Brain Age, a video game designed to be played on a hand-held game device, has sold 10 million copies worldwide. Retirement communities are rushing to establish brain gyms to help current residents sharpen their mental skills and to attract baby boomers, who may one day put such amenities on a par with a weight room and a track.

“I see this as a new frontier of fitness overall,” says Alvaro Fernandez, founder and chief executive of the website SharpBrains .com, which tracks the business and science of brain-training. Americans already understand the value of physical fitness as a means of preserving the body’s proper function and preventing age-related diseases, says Fernandez.

He predicts that cognitive fitness will become a goal to which Americans equally aspire as we learn more about aging and the brain.

In class or online
Kathy Kurschner, a 64-year-old Angelino now retired from a busy job in the travel industry, says she possessed “an incredible memory” until a few years ago, when little lapses — not remembering the date, finding she could not hold on to the name and face of someone she had just met — told her “it was not so wonderful anymore.”

When Kurschner saw a call for volunteers for a UCLA program now called Memory Bootcamp, she readily signed up. The five-week session taught strategies designed to strengthen and support short-term, or “working,” memory and tune up attention skills. Organized by UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Gary Small, the program now is offered in several Los Angeles locations.

“I want to do as much as I can to keep my mind alert,” says Kurschner, who has gone on to teach some of the skills at the Center for Healthy Aging in Santa Monica. She believes that the program has strengthened her memory, in part by underscoring the role that attention, stress reduction and exercise play in keeping the mind sound.

Some of those seeking a mental recharge are surprisingly young. At 28, Lucas Mills has just entered Yale Law School after taking a year off to surf, explore the computer graphics industry and knock around Los Angeles.

“You can notice differences in performance, especially when you go from college to the real world, where you’re not as stimulated every day,” said Lucas. “With the specter of law school looming, I decided I had to do better.”

A friend introduced Lucas to an online cognitive exercise program called Lumosity, commercially launched this summer. Lumosity presents a wide range of exercises that target different mental processes that decline with age, including working memory, speed of processing and attention.

The program was designed to address the needs of the baby-boom-and-older demographic, and its makers have conducted small-scale clinical trials of its effectiveness on this group. But they’ve found since its launch that the program has gained a devoted audience of twenty- and thirtysomethings as well.