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50+: Live Better, Longer

Best Memory-Boosting Games

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Banking on this research, dozens of brain-training books, computer games, and Websites have hit the market — all promising to make your brain friskier and maybe even ward off big mental threats like Alzheimer's. Do these programs work? The jury's still out, though company-sponsored studies suggest they may.

There are two key requirements: You must do the exercises consistently. And they shouldn't be too easy. "Brain training is analogous to physical workouts," says brain researcher Sherry L. Willis, Ph.D., a professor in the department of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University. "You have to cross train — work different parts of your brain and keep adding new challenges."

In an unscientific experiment, I test-drove five top-selling brain boosters to see which ones I could stick with for the months — or years — the researchers say are necessary to preserve and improve brainpower. My criteria: Was there science to back a product's claims? Was the program challenging enough to hold my interest? Fun enough to make me want to play it again and again? Here's what I found.

Brain Fitness Program

The game: Drawing on research from leading neuroscientists, the Posit Science Brain Fitness Program 2.0 consists of progressively trickier listening exercises. The program comes with headphones — essential for these audio games since you need to distinguish nearly identical sounds (bu and du, for example, or doe and toe). You can adjust the headphones for volume. Suggested playtime: At least 15 minutes a day; for maximum benefit, the company recommends that you complete 40 hours in three months.

The claim: Retraining the brain to hear information will boost memory storage and recall.

The evidence: In a company-sponsored study of 182 older people, nearly all (93 percent) of those who followed the program for eight weeks increased their mental-processing speed. Earlier research showed that the program improves memory by an average of 10 years.

Play-by-play: Brain Fitness feels like strength training — slow and highly focused. As you work on distinguishing sounds, a graphic on the bottom half of the screen gradually develops into a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge or Paris or Easter Island or other scenic spot.

Score: * * * * 1/2

Somehow, the combination of ear training and soothing graphics makes me want to keep going. I like the clear explanations of each task's benefits and the page that charts my advancement. I'm left believing that my brain is getting into shape, a payoff that makes the high cost of this game seem justifiable.

Cost: $395 for a DVD; $495 for two users (positscience.com)

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