Aging Japanese Keep Their Minds Moving

By Mariko Yasumoto
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

TOKYO -- Every night, just before hopping into bed, Sachiko Sakurai plays a video game on a handheld console she recently bought. But Sakurai is not a child fixated on digital entertainment. She is 62 years old and looking forward to the birth of her first grandchild two months from now.

"I never imagined I would play an electronic game," Sakurai said. "But I'm enjoying this."

What she plays is a brain-exercise game, Atama Scan, part of a broad range of mental acuity products that are all the rage in Japan: books, toys, food and other things, sold with the pledge that they can reenergize aging brains.

Brain-Exercise Origami is on sale. Seniors can take a Brain-Training Tour. Brain books line the shelves in the senior-care section of stores. And toy robots are offered for sale with such claims as "Patting this robot can stave off aging."

Japan is the fastest-aging nation in the world, with among the longest average life spans, 85 years for women and 79 for men. Combine those demographics with affluence and the result is a major market and a senior phenomenon. It doesn't matter that many mainstream medical researchers say the products have questionable practical effect.

Municipal governments are offering mental exercise programs for the elderly as part of efforts to lower the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and alleviating the ever-increasing payout for senior nursing care insurance.

Krume city in southern Japan has a recollection class in which elderly residents gather in a room equipped with an old-fashioned kitchen table and dozens of items from the 1950s. The idea is to re-create the atmosphere of a half-century ago to help them remember youthful experiences. Aged minds can be energized when recalling past times, according to a city official.

Analysts said the current brain-training trend began in 2004 and 2005 when video games such as Sega Toys Co.'s Brain Trainer and Nintendo Co.'s Brain Age became smash hits. Since its launch, Brain Age for Nintendo's DS console has sold 6.7 million copies around the world, including 3.4 million in Japan.

"I want to keep my mind strong and healthy," said Sakurai, who operates a senior-care business in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo, and understands the hardships suffered by dementia patients.

Both games, which include simple math and word quizzes, rendered globally famous the name of Ryuta Kawashima, a neuroscientist who supervised development of the games. The professor at Tohoku University is also the writer of a collection of best-selling brain-exercise workbooks that came out in 2003.

Kawashima compiled the workbooks based on research he conducted at a senior-care home in Fukuoka prefecture. He has reported that simple calculation and reading activate the brain's prefrontal area in some people, resulting in an improvement in cognitive function.

"The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease improved, and that's a significant milestone in dementia research," Kawashima said in a telephone interview.

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