June 6, 2007
The Dallas Morning News
Bob Moos

When Chester Cohen visited the Conservatory Senior Living community in Keller last year, he was impressed that it has not one, but two fitness centers.

The first comes equipped with exercise gear to keep the blood circulating and the muscles toned – stationary bikes, treadmills and weights.

But the second appealed to the 85-year-old even more. It houses a brain fitness program to keep the mind sharp.

Residents sit at computers and put on headphones to work on a series of listening exercises. A coach guides them through the drills.

Mr. Cohen and his wife of 52 years, Hazel, moved in and signed up for the eight-week brain training program, developed by Posit Science Corp.

After completing the 40 hours of computer exercises, the two say they’re better at remembering names and concentrating on what people tell them.

I’m having fewer senior moments,” Mr. Cohen said.

The Cohens are on the leading edge of a revolution that’s overturning the belief that the brain is like a machine and that, like all machines, it wears out.

Recent research shows that a normal brain, if challenged, can remain active as long as the rest of the body.

“Scientists once thought that the brain was hard-wired at birth and that some cognitive abilities began declining early in life,” said Dr. Sandra Chapman, director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas. “We now know that good nutrition, physical exercise and mental stimulation can improve the brain’s functioning at any age.”

Dr. Chapman said the brain can rewire itself and become stronger.

Quality of life

The new scientific understanding is giving rise to products and services that cater to an aging population worried about mental decline.

Experts predict a raft of brain training software and Web sites to arrive on the market before long. Fitness-minded people can also work on their hippocampus at happyneuron.com (“make your brain sweat”) or mybraintrainer.com (“you’ll never think the same way again”).

“People want to stay at the top of their game, not only physically but mentally,” said Nancy Ceridwyn, director of strategic initiatives for the American Society on Aging. “They understand that living a long life isn’t enough. What matters is the quality of that life. Why live to 90 if you can’t enjoy it?”

But with the growth in the industry will come the need for consumers to tell the legitimate products from the dubious, Ms. Ceridwyn said.

“This industry presents a huge opportunity for charlatans, so consumers should look at the credentials of the scientists behind each program,” she said. If consumers are looking for scientifically proven results, she recommends searching the Web for the program’s clinical trials.

Smart marketing

Senior communities are becoming fertile ground for the emerging brain health field.

Dallas-based Conservatory Senior Living promotes itself as the first company in Texas to offer Posit Science’s brain fitness program.

Brain health is a passion with Conservatory founder and president Marvin Myers, who, at 84, still puts in long workdays.

After Mr. Myers heard of Posit Science’s program, he researched and tested it and then added it as an amenity at each of his senior independent-living communities.

“I suppose I could be accused of acting out of self-interest because the longer people stay alert and independent, the longer they’ll be able to live with us,” he said.

But business reasons aside, Mr. Myers considers brain fitness as important to healthy aging as nutritious meals and regular physical activity.

“I expect that brain gyms will become fixtures in all senior living communities in time because the residents will demand them,” he said. “Everyone is looking for ways to stave off memory loss or dementia.”

The Conservatory has two communities open – in Keller and Austin – with three under construction in Plano and the Houston area, and more on the drawing board.

The 35 residents who have taken the program in the last year have donned caps and gowns and received diplomas in front of their families.

Dr. Thomas Crook, chief executive of Cognitive Research Corp. and author of The Memory Advantage, said Posit Science enjoys a good reputation because it has subjected its brain training program to scientific testing.

“You can’t say that about many of the Web sites that promise to rejuvenate your brain,” he said. “They don’t have much science behind them.”

The program

Another company entering the field is CogniFit Ltd. of Israel, whose MindFit program just arrived in the United States after its introduction in Europe several months ago.

The program tones 14 cognitive functions. Users work on their perception, attention and short-term memory during half-hour sessions three times each week for three months at home.

“As we age, our brains take longer to process information,” company founder and president Shlomo Breznitz said. “We’re trying to shorten that time.”

CogniFit will sell the program for $149 per individual and offer discounts to members of the same household.

Posit Science’s program is a bit pricier. The single-user version costs $395; the two-user program runs $495.

Posit Science worked with 50 neuroscientists to design its software, which is supposed to sharpen listening skills and memory.

Among the exercises, users distinguish between similar-sounding syllables and answer questions about stories they’ve just heard.

The computer program automatically adapts to each person’s level of ability, so the mental drills never become too difficult or too easy.

Dr. Joe Hardy, a neuroscientist and San Francisco-based Posit Science’s director of research and development, said researchers have found that many users roll back the clock on their memory by 10 years.

About 130 retirement communities throughout the United States and Canada have purchased the program, paying about $100 per residential unit.

Humana Inc. also has begun offering the brain training course at no charge to its Medicare Advantage customers and for $100 to its Medicare prescription drug benefit customers.

“It’s a good fit with our holistic approach to good health,” Humana spokesman Dick Brown said.

Dr. Hardy estimates that “tens of thousands” of customers have completed the program.

Though older adults have been the first customers, boomers trying to hold on to their mental edge are also discovering the product, he said.

Better listener

Craig Kinney, who’s 56 and lives in Irving, bought the program early this year and worked his way through the 40 sessions on his home computer.

“It requires discipline, but it’s helped,” he said. “When my wife and I went to the movies, I used to ask her what an actor had said. Now I understand the dialogue.”

Mr. Kinney, who plays in a soccer league for men 50 and older, said he wants to keep his mind as fit as the rest of him.

Boomers will be a boon for the brain fitness industry, said Dr. Bert Hayslip, a professor of psychology at the University of North Texas.

“Boomers have always been a generation that’s tried to defy age,” he said.

Scientists have found that many activities – from playing the piano to learning a language to reading – are good for mental stimulation, said Ms. Ceridwyn from the American Society on Aging.

But boomers have enjoyed computer games for years, so they’re likely to turn to computers for their cerebral calisthenics, she said.

Many consumers might balk at prices in the hundreds of dollars for what may seem like a computer game.

But Dr. Chapman from UT-Dallas predicts that brain fitness will offer an enormous benefit as the country struggles to pay the mounting bills from an aging population.

“If people can keep their mental faculties, they’ll be able to work longer and stay out of nursing homes,” she said. “Just think of the savings to families and society.”