Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Brain Fitness" for Seniors

On September 8, 2008, a Press Release entitled "Seniors Housing Communities Embrace Brain Fitness Centers" announced that the American Seniors Housing Association, in conjunction with SharpBrains, issued a briefing that "describes the use of computerized brain fitness tools being offered to senior housing residents as part of comprehensive wellness initiatives."

"Brain Fitness" is described by Wikipedia as a new movement in science:

Brain fitness grew out of the study of neuropsychology and is the science of maintaining and training cognitive abilities. Its training principles are based on concepts derived from phenomena contributing to neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.

Cognitive abilities like attention, memory, visual/spatial processing, auditory processes and language, motor coordination, and executive functions like planning and problem solving diminish over time unless they are used regularly.

A major hypothesis is that improvement in cognitive abilities through brain exercise represents brain fitness, in an analogy with how physical exercise produces physical fitness. * * * Brain fitness typically seeks to improve attention, memory, thinking, and stress management.
The study of "brain fitness" quickly resulted in devices and programs intended to improve brain functioning, particularly for seniors anticipating or experiencing decline.

Jack LaLanne, the American fitness, exercise & nutritional expert, soon to be 94, is a proponent of brain exercise along with physical exercise, to maintain well-being, according to a Washington Times article, "Brain fitness on LaLanne's mind" (07/09/08), by Karen Goldberg Goff:

"Dying is easy," Mr. LaLanne says in a phone interview from his California office. "Living is an athletic event. Inactivity is a killer. A little exercise pays off such great dividends." * * *

His latest venture is as a spokesman for [m]Power, a cognitive exercise media system. The system, which is being used in more than 100 senior living centers and is available for home use, uses video and sound clips, trivia games and brain teasers to give senior citizens' brains a workout. * * *

Dan Michel, chief executive of Dakim, the company that manufactures the device, says a mental workout -- like the physical workout Mr. LaLanne has been promoting all these years -- can improve cognitive functioning and ward off signs of dementia.

"Scientists now believe that the brain is plastic until the end," he says. "As aging occurs, we lose neurons or synapses over time. If we are constantly learning new things, we create new neurons and create a cognitive reserve. Our system works on long-term memory, short-term memory, language, spatial relations and critical thinking. It constantly self-adjusts the level of difficulty to stretch the mind." * * *

Brain Fitness is now a movement, particularly among senior citizens, soon to be joined by aging "baby boomers."

The trend was highlighted in a New York Times article entitled "As Minds Age, What's Next? Brain Calisthenics" (12/27/06) by Pam Belluck. She reported that "across the country, brain health programs are springing up, offering the possibility of a cognitive fountain of youth. See also: "Beating forgetfulness and boosting the brain" (07/25/07) by Kristen Gerencher, posted by MarketWatch; and "Calisthenics for the Older Mind, on the Home Computer" (08/26/07) by Christine Larsen, also posted by The New York Times, which considered the skepticism of some research scientists.

Still, new high-technology products & programs now fill these "brain gyms." Nintendo, the world's biggest maker of portable game players, sold 21.5 million copies of its Brain Age and Brain Age 2 games in the past two years, according to "Dementia-Dreading Baby Boomers Spur Race to Invent Brain Games" (04/04/08) by Rob Waters, posted by Bloomberg.

He reported about such a "brain gym" that challenges senior citizens:

The software was created by closely held Posit Science Corp. in San Francisco.

It is one of about 20 companies, including Nintendo Co., pitching brain games to the elderly and baby boomers to delay or blunt the onset of dementia.

The market will surge to $2 billion by 2015 from $225 million last year, says Alvaro Fernandez, co-founder of SharpBrains, a San Francisco consulting company. * * *

Brain-training programs for the elderly "will become as common as bingo,'' says SharpBrains' Fernandez, 35, whose company promotes science-based cognitive training. "Over 400 senior residential facilities have brain-fitness centers today.'' * * *
See also: 'Brain fitness' Market for aids to stall 'senior moments' booms with aging boomers (06/20/08), by Megan K. Scott, of Associated Press, who also quoted Mr. Fernandez.

The recent Press Release offered new evidence about this movement, but in the setting of senior housing centers:

This is the very first publication in the field of brain fitness to address specific considerations related to seniors housing, expanding on our general Market Report released earlier this year.

It is very conceivable that the early and enthusiastic adoption of cognitive fitness, supported by the solid measurement of outcomes reported in the Brief, will help to transform the way in which the general population perceives seniors housing. * * *

I wondered about the specifics of the report mentioned in the Press Release, so I sent Mr. Fernandez an email message. He replied quickly:

The target audience for the special report is execs at seniors housing communities, not consumers.

Consumers can find many free resources in our website, more relevant to them than the content of the special report.

Have you seen this series of interviews with scientists and this Program Evaluation Checklist or this overview article on brain health trends? * * *

Although skepticism remains as to the long-term effectiveness of current brain training tools, I am impressed by the growth of this recent movement towards "brain fitness" -- a phenomena suggested by science that quickly materialized into marketed products, now being placed into communal housing for seniors.