October 15, 2006
AARP Bulletin
Brad Edmondson

My father, Tom, is a salesman. He sold milk off a truck in the tiny Florida town of Nokomis, and then he sold ads for the local radio station. When Tom retired, he turned to his real calling—pushing old-time Christian religion and strict readings of the U.S. Constitution via a dozen or so e-mails every day. Like any good salesman, he’s stubborn and single-minded, but his pitches are leavened by love and humor. We get along pretty well.

Six years ago, Tom developed a heart problem and diabetes. Now 77, he sleeps a lot, doesn’t leave the house much, and when he’s tired it’s hard to get his attention. His situation doesn’t bother him, he says, because his next stop is heaven. But it bothers me to see him slip. It’s the kind of thing that can keep me awake at night, even though there’s no apparent urgency. After all, at 47, I, too, feel groggy more often. That’s just how it is.

Or so I thought until, at a conference on aging last year, I heard doctors and scientists agree that older people stay sharper when they stimulate their brains with lots of socializing and problem solving. The good news: The brain is “a machine designed for continuous adaptation,” said Gene Cohen, a psychiatrist who directs aging research at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. But the brain needs continuous challenge: “If a concert musician stops practicing, you can see her ability deteriorate within a month,” said Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist at the University of California-San Francisco. “If she keeps practicing, she can keep her ability until the end of her life.”

The music analogy reminded me of what had been another of my father’s passions: singing and playing the saxophone in a home-grown combo called the Aristocats. When the band did “Spanish Eyes,” Tom, a compulsive entertainer, would put on a big sombrero, break out maracas, and launch into his best Al Martino impersonation. In fact, he was reluctant to check into the hospital for his heart condition in 1999 because it meant canceling a big New Year’s Eve gig. But he did check in, was declared seriously ill and never picked up his sax again.

If Tom wouldn’t practice music, I thought, maybe I could get him to start exercising his brain on a computer. As a matter of fact, I’d try it, too. Merzenich, the chief scientific officer of Posit Science Corp. of San Francisco, the manufacturer of the Brain Fitness Program—one of a growing number of software programs designed to exercise the brain—agreed to send one copy of the program to my dad and one to me at my home in Ithaca, N.Y. Both of us would complete 40 one-hour sessions, compare notes along the way, and gauge our progress.

The Brain Fitness Program draws on a decade or so of insights into the human brain’s reaction to different stimuli, insights gathered using several tools, including one called functional MRI (fMRI). In fMRI, a person puts on special glasses before entering a magnetic resonance imaging machine. While the subject views pictures and solves problems displayed on the glasses, researchers observe how different types of stimuli change electrical activity and blood flow in areas of the brain.

“It is now possible to observe changes in brain activity in real time,” says Richard Restak, M.D., the author of The Naked Brain: How the Emerging Neurosociety Is Changing How We Live, Work, and Love. “As a result, neuroscientists can monitor the brain’s responses and observe how its performance improves with brain-enhancing exercises.”

When presented with my idea for exercising his brain, my dad balked. “My brain is already exercised to its capacity,” he e-mailed me, “as one of a unique group of patriotic writers spending all their time and money to try to motivate their fellow citizens.” But then I bought him a computer upgrade and promised to buy myself the complete works of his favorite free-market economist if he’d go along, and he agreed.

The program was easy for each of us to set up. I wore headphones and concentrated on the screen while cartoon doctors with calming voices prepared me for what was coming. Then the real work began; it was harder than I expected.

There were six exercises. One called High or Low played tones that rise or fall, and I had to describe what I heard by clicking on an “up” or “down” button. It got harder as the sounds became shorter and closer together. The Match It exercise is like the old game show Concentration, except the objective is to match sounds rather than images. During Tell Us Apart, an exercise in distinguishing similar syllables, I found it almost impossible to differentiate “shee” from “chee” and caught myself crankily blaming my hearing problems on the speaker.

Later I remembered something Henry Mahncke, a vice president at Posit Science, had told me: “As a person ages, it gets harder to process sensory input quickly. It’s as if your brain is a radio that is getting rising levels of static. If you don’t correct the tuning, you will understand less of what you see and hear.”

So I bore down, and after a few more sessions something interesting happened. While walking home one evening, I realized I hadn’t had a mid-afternoon slump. I’d stayed focused and productive the entire day. Maybe the hard work was paying off.

And my dad? At first blaming the six dogs he tends for his inability to concentrate, he wrote that the program “requires concentration that is too broken up here to provide unless the Lord provides help.” And after I reported my improvement and inquired whether he, too, noticed anything, he replied, “I can speak Lithuanian now, and I’m slightly congested.”

Despite the sarcasm, there was headway. At the end of each session, the computer sent our results to Posit Science for evaluation, and after our 40 sessions, my dad and I conferred with Mahncke by phone. “Tom made nice steady progress through the High or Low exercise,” Mahncke said. “At the end, he was processing about 85 percent faster than he was at the beginning.” He had also improved his ability to recall a story accurately and to follow a series of instructions.

Tom agreed that in fact he could feel a change. For one thing, he wasn’t falling asleep as much. My mom confirmed that he had indeed gotten more energetic and talkative—although, she added, this was not necessarily a good thing. As for me, Mahncke said, my results were typical for people in their late 40s, who often find the material easier than older exercisers. (I didn’t tell him about my cranky days.)

Clearly, the Brain Fitness Program had been good for my dad and for me. For one thing, we were talking more often, and he was telling me more about how he was feeling—which made me feel better.