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Brain Games and Beyond: Making Sense of the Software

Expert Corner Guest Column


By Andrew Carle

With science now showing you can exercise your brain the same way you exercise your body (your muscles have “elasticity,” while your brain has something called “plasticity”), the market has been flooded with computer-based “brain technologies” promoting everything from better memory to calculator-like skills. Just as with physical exercise equipment, products promoting brain health run the gamut from simple to complex, cheap to expensive, and “fun” to “boring.” So what’s a person to do? As with any exercise program it helps to understand your options.

Why Brain Technologies Can Be Helpful

There are, of course, ways to promote brain health that do not require specialized technology. Along with physical exercise and proper nutrition, everyday activities can have a positive impact on brain health—crossword puzzles, reading, even learning to play an instrument can all improve cognitive functioning. But the key is to take on challenges that are new and different, making your brain work harder, versus repeating routines that have been done a thousand times before. Think of it this way—if all you do are pushups, your arms will be strong, but the rest of your body may look like a potato.

That’s where computer technology can make a difference, by working all key areas of the brain across a broad range of skills including not just memory, but also speed of processing, accuracy, and attention. It’s these areas that can begin to decline in our 30s, and nearly everyone from age 40 onward is impacted in one way or another.

To select the technology best for you, think of them in categories analogous to those used to assess physical exercise options. These include:

*Brain “Games”

Technologies in this category are equivalent to playing tennis, a round of golf, or joining a bowling league. Their central purpose is to be fun, with benefits coming as a by-product of participation. So-called Brain Games don’t make hard scientific claims, and aren’t targeted to a particular age group, but they are helpful, interesting, and can be a lot of fun.

Included in this category is virtually any game you can access on a home computer, game system, or handheld device. Examples include solitaire, mahjong, trivia, and “brain teaser” games. A popular recent brain game is “Brain Age2™” from Nintendo. Designed for use on the Nintendo DS™ handheld system, the game provides a portable and daily opportunity to engage in cross training activities for your brain. Results are tracked and compared to the performance of test subject’s in the 20-plus age range. The better you perform, the lower your “brain age.” (Nintendo DS™ $149, BrainAge2™ $20, at most retailers)

*Brain “Gyms”

The next level includes technologies analogous to joining a gym, or purchasing exercise equipment for use in your home. Examples of brain gyms include any number of online products (usually subscription based at $14 to $15 per month), including Lumosity, MyBrainTrainer, and MIND360. Exercises are science based and can be utilized by any age group. These technologies provide additional structure, allow focus on certain areas, and let you compare your results to others. However, it’s essentially up to you to decide what exercises you want to do, how often, and at what challenge level.

*Brain “Trainers”

Comparable to hiring a personal trainer, these technologies aim to help users achieve an advanced level of function by increasing the level of difficulty, for example, when you respond too quickly to challenges, and backing off when you don’t. Just as important, they are designed for, and targeted to older adults (ages 50-plus). They are based on a set schedule of use, and results are personalized. In other words, the system is less interested in how you compare to others than whether you are making personal gains. Brain Trainers may also determine areas of weakness, and direct you to exercises targeted to specific improvement in these skills.

Examples of these technologies (priced per “user”) include:

PositScience® Brain Fitness Program ($395 downloaded software)

Dakim® BrainFitness™ Program ($349 downloaded software)

CogniFit® Personal Coach ($179.95 for one year online subscription)

*Brain “Systems”

Finally, the most recent trend in brain technologies is for those that address not only brain wellness, but emotional and social well being. Vigorous Mind™ is an example of such technology. (Full disclosure—I serve as a member of their advisory board). While including a “brain trainer” similar to those above, these systems can additionally provide tools for senior friendly email, music, and photo files, as well as for brain games, calendars, and web surfing.

They also gather personal data and incorporate it into activities. If you state you are a Red Sox fan, for example, you will be provided trivia and training questions utilizing this information. Such systems put the full power of computer-based technology to work, creating a world where you can complete your daily exercise, have a few laughs, communicate with friends, and reminisce—all things that can make for a happier, wiser, self. (Personal Edition: $119.95 for one year online subscription, including brain trainer, photo files, brain games, recollections, fun and facts, and web-surfing tools).

So which technology approach is best for you? As with physical exercise, it comes down to how much time you are willing to invest, costs, and how much structure you need to get the job done. When in doubt, start with the basics, find your comfort zone, and then challenge yourself to go to the next level. Your brain will thank you for it.

Andrew Carle is an award winning professor and founding director of the Program in Senior Housing Administration at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He is internationally recognized for coining the term “Nana” Technology™ to describe technologies for older adults, and is considered a leading authority on cognition and related technologies. Contact him at acarle@gmu.edu. Hear a recent ElderGadget podcast conversation with him about trends in senior-friendly technologies by clicking here.

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