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Exercises for the brain help build connections as you age

For one hour, each Monday through Friday a few months ago, seniors at the Fairwinds residential community in Redmond, Wash., donned headphones, stared at computer screens and followed instructions. First, they listened to electronic "sweeps," like bird whistles, and answered whether the sounds arced upward or downward.

Then they would distinguish between sounds, like "gah" and "dah," which the software increasingly distorted based on the ability or "threshold" of each senior. Then, they matched sounds. By the end, they answered questions posed during a lengthy narrative.

After 40 hours of this, Arthur "Ozzie" Osborne, 85, became part of the "brain gym's" inaugural five-member graduating class.

"I had gotten to the point where I'd go in the kitchen to get something and I'd stand there, completely forgetting what I came for," says Osborne. "It would never come to me. Now I can stand there and I can usually figure it out."

And that is the basic point behind the program and a flood of other "brain fitness" products on the market. You must exercise your mind, just as you do your body. But the makers of these products say you must also train properly, that relying on crossword puzzles and games is like going to the gym and doing nothing but bicep curls.

This cognitive calisthenics explosion was born from a perfect storm: between advances in brain science, aging baby boomers grasping for ways to stay young and sharp, concern over age-related memory loss and dementia, and sophisticated computer programs that can track and direct.

The typical brain holds billions of nerve cells and untold connections between them. Each thought we have, every impression we get, each move we make starts with electrical and chemical signals within the brain.

We come out of the womb learning and sorting, all of which builds and strengthens those connections. When we do or learn or practice something over and over again, those connections strengthen, making the circuitry more efficient. In sum, our life actually remodels the brain. Scientists call this activity "plasticity."

They used to think the brain stopped making these connections at about age 30. Now they believe that we keep learning and making connections, just differently and a bit slower. Mental slippage is inevitable, just as is our physical entropy. But we slip at different rates -- and for different reasons, certainly.

The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, a nonprofit organization of neuroscientists, notes that about one-fifth of 70-year-olds perform as well on cognitive tests as 20-year-olds do. In general, it takes us longer to learn and retain information as we age. Processing speed affects daily encounters and tasks, from remembering directions to juggling the multitasking required in the information age.

Technology-savvy boomers set on squeezing the most out of life provide the makings of a growth market for these programs, but the sheer number of aging Americans makes cognitive function a key health issue, too. The National Institutes of Health says there are now about 45 million Americans over age 60, and 117 million over age 40. Current evidence indicates a large number of them are at substantial risk for cognitive impairment.

Posit Science, whose Brain Fitness Program is offered in all Leisure Care Fairwinds residential communities, chose to base its program on audio reception. That's because, their scientists believe, some of the most important information we receive each day comes from listening. Humana, a leading health insurer, offers the program to some of its members.

Dr. Michael Merzenich, chief scientific officer of Posit Science, is considered a pioneer in neuroplasticity. His mother's decline with Alzheimer's prompted him to take the findings from his lab to the marketplace.

Eric Mann, company marketing executive, says it is important for people to treat brain fitness as they do their physical well-being. That means it is not enough to join a gym. You must work out.

"The same is true with cognitive training," he says. "You need the right stimuli, in the right order at the right time -- and you have to do the exercises to see the benefit."

However, while studies have shown evidence that users of these computer-based programs have improved or maintained cognitive skills, there still is much more peer-review study needed to say for sure whether these programs provide "generalized" benefits in everyday life, say neuroscientist William T. Greenough and other experts.

Kathryn Kilpatrick is a speech pathologist who has worked for more than 30 years with adults with memory problems. She believes brain exercises and social activities are important, but that they don't take into account a wide swath of seniors.

"For one thing, there are many who did not like school, are not interested in technology and need their routines to be tailored to their interests and strengths," she says. "I see too many people with mild cognitive impairment, memory loss or early-stage Alzheimer's who stop doing what they used to because it is too frustrating and do nothing because of some of the issues related to their memory loss."

Kilpatrick says that many people forget the importance of attitude, lifestyle choice and stress management. Curiosity is critical. She boasts about an 87-year-old man who goes to the library every three weeks or so and reads on a topic, any topic, that he knows nothing about.

One of her Web sites, www.memoryfitnessmatters.com, offers a number of other helpful ideas.

Marty Wilson is 83, part of the original brain-gym class at the Fairwinds-Redmond, and self-aware enough that she would take breaks when she found her concentration drifting during the hourlong sessions. The program has helped her focus and, she believes, become a better listener.

She's always been a puzzle-doer and recalls how her mother was sharp right to her death at age 101, playing games constantly. In fact, she'd play one against herself if she couldn't find a partner. She didn't worry about her mental power, and so far Wilson doesn't see a need to cause stress over it, either.

"I don't worry about that," she says. "I just take things day to day."

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