Computer brain games can boost aging minds

If you’re worried about age-related memory loss, then toss the crossword puzzle and rev up the computer instead.

Research shows that computerized games — often marketed as brain fitness programs — are surpassing crosswords, jumbles and other leisure mind activities in improving the memory and language skills of aging adults.

The technologies of these specialized games, under names such as Posit Science, Lumosity and Dakim BrainFitness, are designed to give the brain a workout that the old-fashioned paper-and-pencil diversions can’t match.

Even when both activities are administered online, the brain fitness programs produce greater cognitive gains, according to a study conducted independently for Posit Science.

Challenging mind games benefit brain plasticity as well as everyday functioning, and should be part of one’s daily routine, said Emory University neuropsychologist Felicia C. Goldstein.

Goldstein and clinical social worker Susan Peterson-Hazan co-direct Emory’s Memory Support Program for seniors coping with mild memory loss.

They educate seniors on brain health and stress reduction, and include tangible activities such as recording appointments and other important reminders in a notebook or calendar, and journal things they later want to remember.

Because of the success of high-tech memory programs, plans are in the works to include an additional hour on the computer using Lumosity or Posit Science, Goldstein said.

“There is mounting evidence demonstrating the benefits of computer-based brain fitness games in boosting abilities such as memory, concentration and processing speed,” said Goldstein, who is also a co-leader of the Emory Alzheimer’s Disease Clinical Core.

She said ongoing clinical trials are examining the details of how this happens and whether or not memory gains can be maintained over time.

However, not all games on the market are as beneficial, so buyer beware. Goldstein recommends sticking to those with peer-review research studies backing up their claims, and endorsements by experts who have no financial interest in the company.

AARP includes free games on their website, www.aarp.org, that target the aging brain and provide information about each game.

But you don’t have to get online to improve memory. There is strong evidence that physical activity can slow the progression of cognitive decline, Goldstein said. Even a 30-minute walk, three times a week can be helpful, she said.

At Lenbrook, a senior living community in Buckhead, fitness manager Kasey Partus is constantly urging residents to move more, explaining how it will help them mentally as well as physically. Preventing memory loss is a real and expressed concern among the adults she works with.

“We talk a lot about physical activity. That is key. You’ve got to start moving,” she said.

She also stresses changing up daily routines, always trying something different to keep the brain active and alert.

At Lenbrook, Partus created a brain fitness series that teaches elderly residents how the brain ages and leads them through various physical, sensory and verbal group exercises to improve memory.

Partus has participants play games, but not on the computer. She uses social activities such as telephone tag or hangman, where participants must be able to listen, memorize and repeat.

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