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The quest to stop the brain drain

Computer exercises are being sold as an aid to the aging mind. Are they any good?

By Kay Lazar
November 16, 2009

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From the moment he test-drove the brain game, Ed Johnson was riveted.

The word teasers flashing on his computer screen seemed tuned to his personal abilities. And the accompanying voice track prodded or consoled - “it actually congratulates you,’’ he said - based on his answers.

Now, the 92-year-old former management executive, an engineer by training and crossword puzzler by hobby, is scheduling computer time for fellow residents at the Fox Hill Village retirement community in Westwood. The facility just purchased a couple of these newfangled brain games and residents are lining up for 20-minute sessions.

The products are spreading like kudzu through retirement communities and senior centers, as older Americans search for ways to stay mentally sharp. Researchers, however, have yet to determine whether these brain games, targeted to seniors and now an $80 million-a-year market, deliver what they promise.

“The jury is still very much out,’’ said Peter Snyder, a brain researcher at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, who analyzed 10 studies on the issue and came away unimpressed by the quality and quantity of research.

In an article published earlier this year in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia, Snyder concluded there was no evidence the products, typically computer software costing several hundred to a couple of thousand dollars, stave off dementia in healthy elders. Snyder did not delve into the effect of brain exercises on adults who already have cognitive impairments.

“We are going to have a tidal wave of people with dementia as baby boomers continue to age,’’ Snyder said, “I really worry these companies are taking advantage of the average consumer’s concerns about their own health.’’

It wouldn’t be the first time products boasting brain benefits surged in popularity before research raised questions about the claims. The makers of “Baby Einstein’’ in September announced refunds after studies found that the popular videos didn’t actually produce baby geniuses. The product was hyped for more than a decade for its perceived ability to improve infants’ vocabulary.

Now, a growing chorus of researchers is calling for more and better studies of the brain games marketed for people heading toward the other end of the age curve.

“Many of the products may not be ready for prime time, but the science is still developing,’’ said Joe Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab, a center that designs and develops new products for adults over 45.

Coughlin believes some carefully designed brain games may be useful in keeping specific skills sharp. Right now, he’s evaluating the effectiveness of a computer software product that is marketed to baby boomers to help them sharpen driving skills by improving focus, reaction time, and memory. While Coughlin is optimistic that some brain games may be proven effective, he is less convinced that Americans will have the fortitude to stick with them.

“The boomer population is really interested in retaining its marbles, but I am dubious that a population that won’t work out 30 minutes a day or eat a decent meal will make the time and priority to sit down in front of [programs] unless they are engaging or exciting,’’ Coughlin said.

The computer-based brain exercises include a wide variety of challenges designed to boost reaction time, memory, and speed of processing information. In one game, four or five words are flashed on the screen with instructions to remember them. They disappear and the next image includes a grid of 20 words, and the game-player is instructed to find the original words in the grid and click on them as quickly as possible. Another game features a colored sphere that pings around the screen as it quickly changes hues, and the player is instructed to click as quickly as possible on the color along the frame of the image that matches the sphere.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Kenneth L. Minaker, chief of geriatric medicine, doesn’t recommend brain-exercise products for his patients, many of whom have memory impairments, including Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, he suggests physical exercise and social interaction - a game of tennis or checkers, for instance - because, he said, the science is a lot clearer that these types of activities stimulate the brain and help slow deterioration in patients who already have cognitive problems.

Still, he said, he understands the anxiety among his patients who want to fend off the fog of dementia. Minaker is working with the Alzheimer’s Association to review brain games recently purchased for the nursing home section of the retirement community where Ed Johnson lives. Massachusetts General Hospital is one of the original developers of the community and continues to manage its on-site wellness center, where residents can drop in to see a doctor or nurse practitioner.

“There is a demand by patients to do something, either because it’s fun or they think it will help,’’ Minaker said.

University of Washington research psychologist Sherry Willis has spent years studying the effects of various brain teasers on healthy older adults and says they can produce some tangible and lasting benefits. The problem, she said, is that the benefits tend to be very specific to the drill or activity in the exercise, such as memorizing lists of names.

“It’s less likely,’’ she said, “that these computerized training [games] can improve you on everything.’’

Given her findings, Willis said seniors and boomers are probably better off sticking to less pricey activities, such as learning a new language, to stimulate their brains.

When patients ask for advice from Dr. Suzanne Salamon, associate director of geriatrics at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, she suggests they focus on prevention strategies that science has shown are effective in warding off dementia, which has been linked to cardiovascular disease.

“Stay in the right weight range and control high blood pressure, that’s extremely important,’’ Salamon said. “I tell people, in general, to stay active and to keep reading.’’

And what of the much-debated brain benefits of crossword puzzles?

“I say I don’t think crossword puzzles can hurt,’’ Salamon said, “but I would be lying if I said that I thought doing crossword puzzles prevents them from getting Alzheimer’s.’’

The way Johnson, the 92-year-old Westwood resident and crossword enthusiast, sees it, the new computerized brain games can’t hurt, either.

“Just as we were told 20, 30 years ago to exercise our body,’’ Johnson said, “I think we are on the start of a whole new situation where, in addition to exercising your body, you exercise your brain, so your memory stays young.’’

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.

Thoughtful tips

The debate goes on about whether pricey computer programs can help prevent deterioration of brain function during aging. But there are several tactics that doctors generally agree are effective. These include:

■ Get regular physical exercise.

■ Eat a nutritious diet.

■ Seek out social interaction through sports or group physical activities, or with board games such as checkers.

■ Keep weight and blood pressure at healthy levels.

■ Take up something challenging like learning a new language.