September 21, 2008
Tampa Bay Online
Sherri Ackerman

Tiny diagonal lines squiggle across a computer screen, where 80-year-old Larry Martin sits at the ready.

His assignment: Determine if the lines are moving in or out. If he’s right, he gets a green light. If he’s wrong, it turns pink.

Either way, Martin, a jazz teacher in the University of South Florida’s continuing education program, reaps the benefits.

By using the computer program, known as InSight, twice a week for 14 weeks, he can improve such cognitive skills as memory and mental quickness, with results that can last up to three years.

Researchers at USF’s School of Aging Studies says the program gives users – primarily seniors – a chance at remaining independent and, ultimately, living longer.

The program is particularly useful for helping participants exercise and monitor the skills necessary to drive, said Jerri D. Edwards, an assistant professor at USF who is leading research on brain fitness from inside the school’s Cognitive Aging Laboratory.

“It’s the last thing an older adult wants to do – give up driving,” she said.

Losing their freedom on the road often leaves seniors depressed and inactive, and decreases their access to health care, Edwards said. It also might hasten death.

Her work, which spans a decade and includes more than 4,000 participants, has found that out of 660 adults ages 63 to 97, those who stopped driving were four to six times more likely to die within three years.

That statistic fueled Edwards’ interest in staving off cognitive decline for seniors who are still behind the wheel by evaluating skills such as vision and memory, and by helping them retain “mental quickness.”

“It’s not just about reaction time,” she said. “It’s thinking, ‘Before I press the brake, I need to notice the light is turning red, I need to notice a pedestrian is walking in front of me.'”

A series of clinical trials conducted by Edwards and colleagues found that older drivers who complete the program are 40 percent less likely to stop driving within the next three years and are safer on the roads because of improved reaction times.

Issues with older drivers are becoming increasingly important as baby boomers age, experts say. By 2030, 25 percent of the nation’s drivers will be 65 or older, and 25 percent of those drivers will be involved in fatal crashes, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“It’s an important health concern overall,” said Edwards, whose research alongside other investigators was the basis for InSight, which is marketed by Posit Science.

Improved Information Processing

InSight is designed to improve how quickly we take in information with exercises that speed up visual processing – like when we learn a new dance step, and sharpening visual precision – which allows us to spot and remember details like the color of someone’s eyes.

InSight is available to the public starting at $395 and features five exercises, including Bird Safari, a mental game that requires the user to spot a bird in various locations. Martin had trouble identifying the Orchard Oriole against a pale barn in the background.

He zipped through Road Tour, though, looking for signs on Route 66, but had enough of the Sweep Seeker, a game that features tiles with diagonal, horizontal and vertical lines radiating in and out.

“It’s hypnotic,” said Sarah Norris, an undergraduate gerontology major who assists Edwards.

Martin signed up for the study not because he was worried about his driving skills but to help USF with its research on Parkinson’s disease. Because he doesn’t have the disease, he’s used as a control subject.

He also hoped to improve his short-term memory and concentration when reading.

“I’m distracted by outside sounds,” he said.

Improving his driving never entered his mind. Martin and his wife, Jean, get out onto the road about once a day to grocery shop and run errands in Tampa. With no immediate family in the area and few friends to rely on, giving up on driving would devastate them.

“It would be terrible,” Martin said.

Taking A ‘Brain Test’

Pat Slade of Land O’ Lakes also signed up for the study to help with Parkinson’s research. The 77-year-old retired teacher from New York had a brother with the disease. The computer programs were fun and challenging, she said, but Slade hadn’t thought about how they affected her driving.

“I’m a cautious driver. I’m always checking my mirrors,” said the grandmother of nine who helps her daughter ferry around four children.

Slade has taken safe-driving courses and keeps her mind active playing other computer games. She thought the USF study sounded interesting, though some of her friends teased her about the training.

“I would tell them I’m taking my brain test today and they chuckled,” Slade said.