January 13, 2007
Tampa Bay Online
Patty Kim

You hit the gym to keep your bod buff, but do you make time to flex those mental muscles?

The less activity you do, the more your body wastes away, and the same is true for your brain. It boils down to this: Use it or lose it.

“We all experience age-related cognitive decline really starting in our 30s,” says Joseph Hardy, 32, research and development director for Posit Science, a company that develops computer programs that help older adults improve cognitive speed and accuracy.

Maybe it’s time for one more resolution.

Not only can you keep your memory and thinking skills sharp, but research shows it may be possible to stave off the rust that comes from old age – and not-so-old age.

A study funded by the National Institutes of Health and published Dec. 20 in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that mental exercises can help boost the ability of older adults to think clearly and perform everyday tasks.

“With as little as 10 hours of ‘mental workout,’ we could detect positive benefits of training in our subjects five year later, and we found some evidence that people who received training reported less difficulty with tasks of daily living,” says co-author Michael Marsiske, associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida.

The study tracked 2,802 healthy adults 65 and older who received training in memory, reasoning and speed of processing skills, but Marsiske says the findings can apply to those much younger.

“I don’t like to play my son’s video games, but I keep telling myself to challenge myself,” Marsiske told The Washington Post. “What I personally take away from the study is, if you challenge yourself to do some new learning, something that isn’t easy at the start, it can have dividends.”

If you don’t have access to such specialized cognitive training, there are other activities available to fire up your neurons – such as computer programs, video games and puzzles.

“I think there’s a lot of promise in many of these things, these mentally stimulating activities,” says Molly V. Wagster, chief of the Neuropsychology of Aging Branch, part of the Neuroscience & Neuropsychology of Aging Program at the National Institute on Aging. “There is tantalizing data from animal studies, but we need to take more rigorous study in humans.”

Let the mind games begin.

Cerebral Software

Posit Science offers the Brain Fitness Program to reinforce memory and boost processing speed. The eight-week program involves 40 one-hour sessions on a computer. Users listen to sounds to make responses.

“Our program retrains the way the brain processes information to process more quickly and more accurately,” Hardy says. “There are six exercises, which build on each other. All the exercises are designed to be adaptive to your skill level, and as you improve, they get harder. That’s a critical part of how the program works.”

The program targets the brain’s plasticity – its natural ability to change. And Hardy says anyone can benefit from it.

The program is available for home use for $395. Humana is offering it free to Medicare Advantage HMO members and for $100 to other members.

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that 93 percent of people using the Brain Fitness Program significantly increased their auditory processing speed and improved their memory by more than 10 years, and the results lasted beyond the end of the program.

For information, go to www.positscience.com.

Food For Thought

Dakim founder Dan Michel created the [m]Power cognitive fitness system after his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The system is designed to improve the quality of life for all seniors, including those at risk of Alzheimer’s.

The [m]Power system involves a portable touch-screen monitor and mixes old images, movies, music and sounds in a program to help keep brains fit.

The system incorporates new games and puzzles to keep users from getting bored. The level of difficulty adjusts to each user, offering a customized experience every time.

The system is available to assisted-living communities, skilled nursing facilities and retirement homes. The company hopes to make it available for home use soon.

For information, go to www.dakim.com.

Nintendo’s Brain Age

In April, Nintendo unveiled Brain Age for the hand-held DS Lite. It’s more than just exercising your thumbs, and it’s geared toward all ages.

Inspired by the research of neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, Brain Age throws quick mental activities at you to help keep your neurons firing. So how does it work?

First take a test to determine how old your brain is – your DS Brain Age. Then try the exercises – such as solving simple math problems, drawing pictures on the touch screen and reading literature passages aloud – daily. As you improve, you’ll shave off years and even decades to improve your Brain Age score.

Need motivation? Open up the competition to family and friends.

For information, go to www.brainage.com.

Wonders Of The Web

You can access 40 brain games that target the five types of cognitive skills most likely to decline with age – memory, attention, language, reasoning, and visual and spatial – at www.HappyNeuron.com.

It was developed by French neuroscientists Bernard Croisile, Michel Noir and Franck Trapin-Bernard to promote brain fitness. The site offers a personal coaching system to steer you through the games and monitor your progress.

Try your hand at Fifty-Fifty, where you are given half a phrase and must retrieve the other half from memory. Last Word throws several sentences at you. Your job is to remember the last word of each. Sound easy? It will test your attention skills.

A seven-day free trial is available, and the service is $9.95 a month.

Piece Of The Puzzle

If you want to keep it simple, don’t discount crossword puzzles or Sudoku, which uses numbers instead of letters. Fill in a grid so that every row, column and three-by-three box contains the numbers one through nine.

Grab a Rubik’s cube for hours of stimulation. It has 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible configurations, but only one is the solution – having a single color on each of its six sides.

Challenge a friend to a game of chess. It requires strategy, concentration, problem-solving, critical thinking and more