There is a rapidly growing interest in brain fitness today. The aging baby boomer generation is feeling the effects of time, and many are perhaps interested in repairing the damage made by overindulgence in the 60’s. Research over the past few decades has indicated strong links between an active brain and defense against age-related mental deterioration, including the ability to stave off diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
The industry is seeing a boom of new companies, and a lot of related research appears to be in the works. A new study from the University of California-Irvine analyzed the ability of regular mental workouts to delay the progress of Alzheimer’s in hundreds of mice (I know what you’re thinking: how do you give a rat a mental workout?! – I was hoping it would be something innovative, but apparently they just used the traditional rat maze). Another study funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), analyzed the effect of a mere 10 sessions of cognitive skills training on the elderly, showing significant increases in the ability to succeed in daily tasks such as driving and managing finances. The cognitive improvements held for nearly a year, after only 10 initial sessions! Very promising.
Because of this large emerging market for cognitive improvements, we’re seeing a lot of new faces pop up in the industry. Sharp Brains, Rocky Mountain Learning, Posit Science and Vigorous Mind all offer affordable software for brain exercise. Happy Neuron and My Brain Trainer offer online-based “mind gyms” and brain fitness advice. There are probably many more I’m not aware of yet. Many are boasting studies with very promising results, such as a study on Happy Neuron that showed an increase in brain activity confirmed by PET scans. Many of these companies also have Neuroscientists in advisory positions, or on staff like we do.
These programs use puzzles, games and brain teasers to focus the mind on tasks involving memory, attention or complex use of language. Some also integrate nutritional advice and even regular meditation into the regimen, such as the Happy Neuron mentioned above.
The interest in brain fitness is not just on the fringe, or relegated to concerned baby boomers. Some large, established companies are investing in this, and marketing to all ages. Notably, Nintendo recently released a game called “Brain Age”, meant to exercise and sharpen the mind in a fun, entertaining way. You can find this title today in nearly every gaming store.
Of course I am hoping that all this interest in puzzles and games is going to carry over to Neurofeedback and Brainwave Entrainment (BWE), which have also shown great promise with age-related mental problems, as much as they have with ADD. In 1998 Thomas Budzynski, Ph.D. used both Neurofeedback and BWE to vastly improve the cognitive function of a 75 year old man. In 2001, Budzynski and Tang successfully treated 31 seniors by randomly stimulating frequencies ranging from 9-22 hz over about 33 sessions. In a 2004 study by Berg and Siever, 18 hz was stimulated in the left hemisphere and 10 hz in the right, resulting in significant improvements in geriatric depression and balance. Our own Dr. Huang has a great interest in cognitive decline and aging, having focused much of her early neuroscience work on related subjects. You can find a session designed for seniors in our Neuro-Programmer product.
Baby boomers are not just seeking out mental exercise either. American Sports Data reports that Gym memberships for people over 55 have seen a surge of 33%, while memberships among the younger crowd has seen nearly no growth over the same time period. Yoga and Tai Chi have grown 118%, cycling by 66%, elliptical training by 306% – the list goes on and on. The importance of exercise to mental health should not be underestimated. In fact there is some controversy over whether “brain fitness” games offer more mental benefits than a regular physical fitness routine, although there seems to be very little argument that combining both physical and mental fitness into any lifestyle will result in dramatic enhancement of the brain’s capabilities.
Speaking of games and exercise, as the “Nintendo generation” loses its high metabolism, many companies are working to combine gaming with physical exercise as well. I will admit that I own a Game Bike and couldn’t live without it. I have heard that a game-based tread mill is also in the works.
If you’re interested, here is a free online guide to maintaining brain fitness: http://www.thirdage.com/living/games/brainfitness/index.html
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