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Best Memory-Boosting Games

MindFit

The game: Developed by Israeli psychologist Shlomo Breznitz, Ph.D., MindFit is designed to boost cognitive skills, including short-term memory, reaction times, recall, and eye-hand coordination. The program measures my abilities in three extensive evaluation sessions, presents games based on my needs, then monitors my performance and adjusts the difficulty level accordingly. Suggested playtime: 24 sessions to be played for 20 minutes three times a week over several months.

The claim: This "brain gym" trains 14 mental abilities, boosting cognitive reserve and preventing age-related mental decline.

The evidence: In a company-sponsored study of 121 women and men ages 50 and up, those who played MindFit three times a week for three months had "greater improvement in the cognitive domains of spatial short-term memory, visual-spatial learning, and focused attention" than study volunteers who played ordinary computer games.

Play-by-play: The evaluation sessions are real work: For example, I use my mouse to follow a little ball through a maze, estimate the length of time an image is displayed on a tiny TV screen, and choose the larger of two numbers that appear in distractingly tiny or huge boxes.

Score: * * 1/2

I like the audio instructions and the fact that the program is custom-tailored to my needs. But I'm not engaged by the tasks — guessing the correct order of little shuttered windows that open and close is boring, even when I miss a few. I don't think I'd stick with this one.

Cost: $149 for a CD (vigorousmind.com)

Brain Age

The game: Load the wildly popular Brain Age into a Nintendo DS (if you can yank the console away from your kid!), and you'll find a series of math games, literature excerpts to read aloud, and a classic brain twister: saying the color of letters on-screen, even if they spell the name of a different color. The most portable and multimedia-driven of the computerized games I tested, Brain Age uses voice recognition and allows you to write math answers directly on the touch pad with a special stylus.

The claim: Daily practice can lower your personal Brain Age, which is determined by a pretest that places you somewhere between 20 and 80.

The evidence: Brain Age was inspired by the work of Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, M.D., whose research has shown that reading aloud and doing math problems may help activate the brain's prefrontal cortex. Dubbed "your brain's control tower" by Nintendo, this region is the foundation of creativity, communication, memory, and self-control.

Play-by-play: I appreciate the freedom to use Brain Age anywhere. And it's fun seeing my speed assessed on a graphic scale ranging from "walking" to "rocket ship." I like the multimedia aspect, too. But the software sometimes falters. During a timed test, the voice-recognition system repeatedly misunderstands the word "blue": It keeps giving me instructions on how to speak more clearly, forcing me to start over several times and thus wrecking my score. And the device often misinterprets my scribbled answers to math questions. Such delays and misunderstandings lead the program to place my personal brain age at a geezerly 66 years (ouch!). And a game that requires me to memorize 30 words, then write them down, seems like all work, no play.

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