Stephen Nohlgren
St. Petersburg Times
December 20, 2006

Older Americans don’t want to accept that they can’t find the car keys.

To stay sharp, they play mind teasers like Sudoku and buy millions of copies of video games like Nintendo’s Brain Age. A retirement community in Melbourne even offers a “brain gym,” where residents sit at computers for eight weeks of training.

And now a seven-year study financed by the National Institute on Aging suggests that they are on the right path.

The study, reported Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that 2,100 Americans ages 65 to 94 derived long-lasting benefit from a short burst of training on how to improve memory, reasoning power and mind speed.

The five-week training consisted of 10 90-minute sessions on memory, reasoning and speed of processing.

Even five years later, study participants outperformed non-participants on tasks like looking up phone book numbers, finding food in their pantries and deciphering medicine labels.

The gains delayed typical cognitive decline of healthy adults by seven to 14 years. Seventy-year-olds exhibited the mental quickness of 60-year-olds.

“Our findings clearly suggest that people who engage in an active program of mental training in late life can experience long-lasting gains,” said University of Florida psychologist Michael Marsiske, one of the study’s researchers.

The study, called ACTIVE, was a collaboration of 11 scientists at eight academic institutions, plus Jeffrey Elias, a cognitive aging specialist at the National Institute on Aging.

The notion that older brains are still trainable is not new, Elias said. For several years, advice columns have touted the advantages of solving crossword puzzles, playing a musical instrument or learning a second language. Those activities may indeed strengthen certain circuits in the brain, Elias said, but the scientific verdict is still out.

In contrast, the ACTIVE study produced generalized, measurable results and was a rigorous clinical trial, with a control group and peer review, he said.

Training to increase processing speed seemed to impart the most mental benefit. The training method was developed by Karlene Ball, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It consisted of computer screens that made study participants react to objects at the far reaches of their field of vision. As training progressed, the tests grew quicker and more complicated.

Ball originally developed the tests for driver training programs. After working on the computer, subjects switched to a driving simulator where they braked more quickly and avoided more road hazards.

Ball and her colleagues have formed a company called Visual Awareness and hope to begin selling a home computer version of the training next spring.

“I see more and more interest in the whole topic of brain training,” Ball said. “Everybody on the plane is doing Sudoku.”

The NIA has not validated any commercial “brain training” programs, Elias said. But the Internet abounds with them.

There’s www.agogus.com, which promises for $30 a year to keep members abreast of all the “best and latest brainy tools, info, games, products and discoveries.” Posit Science Corp. of San Francisco has been marketing a $395 “Brain Fitness” program since the summer of 2005. It consists of a series of auditory and visual computer challenges, which grow increasing difficult.

In July, Humana Inc., one of the nation’s largest health insurance companies, began offering Posit’s Brain Fitness program to its Medicare HMO members, just as it offers gym memberships in the name of wellness.

The Fountains, a 300-resident retirement community in Melbourne, installed a bank of six computers in February so residents can take Posit’s eight-week training program.

“They absolutely love it,” says Libby Hash, who directs the Fountains’ wellness programs. “It has caused a phenomenal change in our resident’s acuity levels, their ability to remember names and most of all in boosting their confidence.”

The home can train 12 residents at a time, and 48 have graduated, so far.

Steve Fry, a 62-year-old math teacher at Polk Community College, bought the Posit Science program and trained on it diligently at home.

He’s not sure it beefed up his mental muscles. Maybe he understood what his students were saying a little easier. But he’s a scientist and would like to see real data before giving an endorsement.

“I like the theory behind it. I think it’s a cool thing,” Fry said. “But I don’t want to say something happened and it’s glorious.”

Brain training may be less effective for younger people still in the work force, said Elias of the National Institute on Aging. Complex. Job-related tasks may provide much of the same mental stimulation that the ACTIVE study offered older retirees.

Nevertheless, Elias expects that middle-age adults will continue to gravitate toward brain-fitness products.

“Baby boomers are going to be a real market for this kind of thing,” he said. “But you may still forget to pick up the milk and get to the clothes cleaners before they close.”