April 29, 2007
Lini S. Kadaba

Gerry Stride cracks wise about having a senior moment when she forgets a name. But this baby boomer’s fear of succumbing to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is no joke.

That’s why Stride, 57, is a regular at the new “brain gym” of the Medford Leas retirement campus, where she works as director of community life. The exercise room contains eight computers loaded with Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Program, one of a growing number of software applications designed to stimulate the mind and, say its designers, possibly stave off mental decline.

“I work on the hospital unit” of the Medford continuing-care facility, Stride said. “I’ve seen what dementia does.

“If I can do something, bring it on.”

As more baby boomers enter their 60s and others witness their elderly parents descend into senility, say experts, they’re chasing after cognitive fitness with the same vigor they’ve had while pursuing wrinkle-free skin and erectile function.

By holding out the promise of sharper, longer-lasting brain cells, a plethora of gadgets, classes and computer games has captured the attention of forever-youngs – despite thin scientific proof that any of this will keep their minds humming.

Nintendo’s popular Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day (1.3 million copies sold, according to the NPD Group) is more about fun than an assessment of mental acuity. But others – such as MindFit from Cognifit Ltd. and Brain Fitness, with object identifications, geometric puzzles and list recitations – have some limited evidence to back claims.

Researchers can barely keep up with the interest shown by boomers. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alzheimer’s Association plan to issue a “road map” to cognitive health. And at the Joint Conference of the American Society on Aging and National Council on the Aging last month, at least 10 sessions highlighted brain fitness and the need to master ever-more-complex tasks.

In this region alone, a half-dozen new classes – with boomers sprinkled among the elders – are devoted to exercising the old noggin’.

Boomers are “proactive, health-minded, and want to do things to keep their bodies young and their minds sharp,” said Gary Small, director of the Center on Aging at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of The Memory Bible.

By 2030, the number of Americans with dementia is expected to more than double to 5.2 million, while those 65 and older with Alzheimer’s is predicted to grow 50 percent, to 7.7 million.

This month, UCLA hosted a one-day $500 boot camp aimed at affluent boomers after memory techniques, brain-healthy recipes and mind-building exercises. And the handheld Brain Games, which Small created, hit Sharper Image and other stores in January. For $19.99, the electronic device “cross-trains your brain,” Small said.

In the last decade, research has shown that the brain changes in response to stimulation, and that novel and complex learning adds neurons. Less certain is the connection between rousing cells and warding off mind-robbing diseases.

Most studies have been small and have shown only limited benefits to brain training. While they have not disproved the usefulness of cerebral calisthenics, they have not proved it, either.

Results of the first rigorous clinical trial, published in December’s Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that while mental exercise didn’t help seniors tackle real-life tasks better, performance on certain tests improved.

“The findings are important and provocative, but not yet conclusive,” said Richard Suzman of the National Institute on Aging, which helped fund the study. For many, though, even a slight possibility of staying sharper is motivation enough to enroll in one of the area’s many courses.

Next month in Lansdale, the PEAK Center for those 55 and older will launch “Memory Training,” a course based on UCLA strategies for recalling the usual stumpers: numbers, names and faces. An evening session is planned to accommodate those still employed.

In the fall, Widener University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute will add “Brain Gym 101” to its lineup.

“It’s generally a very joyful activity,” said Adele Juzi, 76, of West Chester, who teaches the series of movements set to music. “It makes you feel relaxed and bright and ready to do.”

Insurance company Humana has begun giving Posit Science’s $395 Brain Fitness software to its Medicare Advantage customers for free – about 5,000 have requested it – and at a discount to employees. It also plans Brain Fitness Camps around the country.

The 40-hour program, based on five auditory tasks, asks users to answer questions after hearing a story or to distinguish between sounds such as baa and gaa. The sound clips become progressively shorter and faster.

Skeptics wonder whether such computer programs will appeal to on-the-go boomers. “This has to get to the point of being on your cell phone,” said neuropsychologist Paul D. Nussbaum of the University of Pittsburgh.

Plus, he warned, there are a lot of dubious claims out there.

Several octogenarians at the Havertown Center for Older Adults have moved from strengthening bodies to fortifying minds. The “Cognitive Fitness” series, piloted in August, started with a backward-spelling bee. Chicken was tough. Next came rebus word puzzles.

“I like these,” Norma Grassi, 85, said. “They’re fun.”

“When you get them,” Yola Ierardi, 80, grumbled.

That’s the point, said class leader Susan Jims. “If that’s hard for you, that means it’s new for your brain. The brain hungers for novelty.”

She walks her talk. “Last summer I did a sudoku puzzle, which was not me,” Jims, 60, said. “It hurt my brain.”

At the Wayne Senior Center, artist Kathy Harris teaches “Drawing for Brain Fitness.” Elynore Tract, 83, of St. Davids, studied the still-life setting of a cleaning-fluid jug, soup can and other cylinders. “I can’t remember names,” she said. “I don’t want to get to the point where I can’t remember anything.”

Gloria Boring, director of Simpson House, was one of the first to use Brain Gym at the West Philadelphia elder community.

“My generation really wants to be healthy in later stages of their life,” said Boring, 60, who lives in Bensalem. “I’m doing things to try and stay fit.”

Stride, of Medford Leas, is tackling the program for a second time – a booster shot, she said.

When the computer course was first offered in the fall, she needed a lottery to winnow the pool of 90 residents eager to try.

As the class, across from the fitness-room treadmills, wound down, Frances Stoll, 84, was sweating mentally. “We’re all exhausted,” she said.

The workout was worth it, she added. “I do concentrate better.” Usually, when Stoll meets someone, she soon forgets the name. “Today, I remembered. I was very proud of myself.”