December 26, 2006
New York Post
Rebecca Ascher-Walsh

IT turns out our teachers weren’t just being sadistic: Sweating through geometric proofs and slogging through “War and Peace” really is good for us.

At least that’s what a study pub lished in last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association suggests.

In the trial, 2,800 adults ages 65 and up each received 10 hours of reasoning, memory and speed-of-processing training over the course of five weeks. Five years later, individuals reported greater ease performing daily tasks across the board – with significant findings in the reasoning group.

“We had known that you could take older adults, present them with a training program, and see a boost in mental performance,” says study co-author Dr. Michael Marsiske, associate professor and chair of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida.

“What we didn’t know is how long those gains would last. What’s amazing to me is that with such brief training sessions, we continued to see positive effects years later.”

“This is one of the first studies that shows there are ways of maintaining specific aspects of thinking and brain function with specific exercises,” says Dr. Sean Morrison, a specialist in geriatrics at Mount. Sinai Hospital in New York City.

However, in terms of specifics, he warns, “It’s still preliminary. I wouldn’t advocate that older adults go out and buy games or products.”

That hasn’t stopped several companies from competing in the mental gymnastics market. With problem solving, drawing and storytelling, Nintendo’s Brain Age may not be as much fun as Pac Man, but it’s a day at the amusement park compared to some of Marshiske’s suggestions – such as taking a whack at your tax returns before sending them to a pro.

Other games are offered by a company called Sharp Brains, whose Web site ( offers regimens that include a “personal trainer” to evaluate specific needs.

“The human brain is much more plastic than it’s been given credit for, and it’s influenced by activity,” says company co-founder and neurologist Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, “So it was logical to create a cognitive workout circuit.”

With computer-based games from Posit Science (, that workout gets more difficult as the user gains proficiency. The company, with a board of 50 scientists, runs clinical trials on its products to ensure it’s staying up to speed.

Says Dr. Henry Mahncke, the company’s vice president of R&D, “We knew we wanted to build something that was scientifically based, and we wanted to prove, scientifically, that it worked. There’s enough snake oil in the world.”

If only it made us smarter.