March 6, 2008
The Patriot-News
Monica Von Dobeneck

Geri Oakes, 65, headphones clamped to her head, listened intently to the swooping sound as it sometimes went higher in pitch, sometimes lower.

Then she tried to distinguish between similar sounds, like “gah” and “dah.” Eventually, as she went through the exercises in her Brain Fitness program, she followed complex directions after listening to a long narrative.

Some recent studies indicate Brain Fitness and similar computer-based programs might help aging people sharpen their memories. Other studies indicate more limited results.

When Oakes, who lives at Country Meadows retirement community in Derry Twp., started the eight-week program, she could get four or five correct answers in a row.

Now, she can get more than 1,400 right consecutively. The exercises automatically adjust to the user’s ability and become increasingly challenging.

The participant must listen attentively and focus, according to Jane Lambert, coach for the course Country Meadows offers free to residents.

Brain Fitness, its developers including neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, has become increasingly popular at retirement communities. Several offer it in the midstate, including Columbia Cottage and Traditions of Hershey in South Londonderry Twp.

It and similar programs also are showing up in private homes as baby boomers work to stave off memory loss.

A study conducted last year by the Mayo Clinic and the University of Southern California of 524 Brain Fitness users concluded that the participants, all 65 and older, became faster and more accurate in processing information.

They also reported improvement at remembering names, phone numbers and where they left their keys.

Elana Farace, a neuropsychologist at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, said other studies of computer-based brain programs have shown limited results.

Improving memory through such programs is “a very, very attractive idea, but we don’t have the answers yet,” Farace said. “They won’t actually make you smarter, which is what people hope.”

Still, for elderly people, getting any kind of intellectual stimulation, including activities such as reading or crossword puzzles, is good, she said.

Alvaro Fernandez, who runs a Web site and consulting business called Smartbrains that evaluates brain programs, said people will only see improvement if they are motivated.

“It’s not a pill you take once and it’s all fixed,” he said. “It’s like a gym, it requires working out.”

Fernandez said other factors are important in maintaining brain health, including physical exercise and social interaction.

Vernelle Gunter, 81, spent an hour a day for eight weeks working out with Brain Fitness. The Country Meadows resident believes she thinks better than she did 15 years ago.

Gunter said her children have noticed the difference. She is taking piano lessons and tackling more challenging works than she ever imagined.

“I don’t have to read a paragraph two times to understand what it says,” she said.