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Keeping Your Brain Fit for Life

Software companies are offering new programs that promise to keep your brain sharp as you get older.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

"I used to have a tremendous memory," Maria Luisa Bravo, 72, says wistfully.

But a decade ago, the San Francisco woman started having memory loss that comes with aging. She forgot phone numbers, passages that she had just read in books, even where she parked her car. Often, she received parking tickets because she forgot to move her car on street-cleaning days.

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"I am very, extremely upset that I'm losing my memory," she says.

Can science offer any real help to older people such as Bravo?

Henry Mahncke, PhD, believes so. Mahncke is vice president of research and outcomes at Posit Science Corp. Six months ago, Bravo signed on for the company's "Brain Fitness Program" computer exercises to try to improve her memory.

"Brain fitness" is an emerging concept, and researchers such as Mahncke are at the forefront. In the past few years, new software companies have sprung up to cater to seniors and the baby boomers not far behind them. Their mission: to help people keep a mental edge throughout life -- even into old age.

"I think medical technology's going to let us live longer and longer," Mahncke says. "And I think we should be able to keep people's brains sharp."

Posit Science says that it builds its programs upon brain plasticity, the brain's ability to create new neural pathways and connections in response to new experiences. "The brain is a complex, adaptive system," says Mahncke, who serves as vice president of research and outcomes. And plasticity can happen at any age, even in the older years.

Nintendo's Brain Age

The notion of brain fitness has even invaded popular culture. In April, Nintendo released Brain Age, a Japanese-inspired, handheld video game to help users' minds stay active. While the game is marketed for all ages, the buyers -- now numbering more than 655,000 in the U.S. -- have mainly been older people, Nintendo of America spokeswoman Amber McCollom writes in an email. Players take a nonscientific test that calculates a "brain age" for the purposes of the game. Through a series of puzzles and other challenges, they try to shave years or even decades off their brain age score.

A catchy gimmick, but people shouldn't take it seriously. "The notion that there's a brain age isn't well accepted," says Timothy Salthouse, PhD, a University of Virginia psychology professor who is an expert on cognitive aging. Calculating brain age is difficult because it depends on many different variables, and a person can perform well on one variable and poorly on another, he says.

McCollum likens Brain Age to crossword puzzles. "We're not claiming that it does anything more than keep the mind active while letting people have fun."

Software to Enhance Mental Ability

The real heavy lifting is happening at places such as Posit Science, a well-funded, serious endeavor backed by brain researchers and scientific advisors from universities, such as Johns Hopkins, Yale, Stanford, MIT, the University of California, and several brain research institutions abroad. The four-year-old company has also received grant money from the National Institutes of Health.

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