Brain Fitness Classes Keep Seniors Mentally And Socially Active

Rachel Thompson says the class she conducts for seniors in Arlington challenges them and helps them build social ties.
Rachel Thompson says the class she conducts for seniors in Arlington challenges them and helps them build social ties. (By Leah L. Jones For The Washington Post)
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By Sindya Bhanoo
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On Monday mornings, Lynne Rosenblum puts on her thinking cap.

Then the recently retired Treasury Department employee drives to the Walter Reed Senior Center in Arlington for her aerobics class.

Brain aerobics, that is.

Rosenblum and several other seniors gather around a table, pen and paper in hand, and wait for the games to begin. In the front of the room, instructor Rachel Thompson puts puzzles on the white board, and together the seniors work through them. "An affair to [blank], [blank] the Alamo," Thompson wrote one day.

"Remember!" someone called out.

Together they spend an hour, solving riddles, doing word puzzles and trying their hand at mental math.

There is no strong medical evidence that games such as these boost mental capacity or slow the aging process, but aging baby boomers have been investing heavily in brain fitness books and classes, as well as computer games and memory improvement workshops.

The brain fitness software industry reported $850 million in worldwide revenue for 2007, up from $250 million in 2005, according to SharpBrains, a market research group. Brain fitness seems to be one of the industries that has thrived in a sagging economy, according to Alvaro Fernandez, chief executive of SharpBrains, who says 2008 appears to have been a year of solid growth. "We expect to see tremendous growth in 2009 as well," he said.

The program at Walter Reed is funded by the nonprofit Alliance for Arlington Senior Programs. The classes are free and offered weekly.

Thompson, a counselor responsible for helping seniors adjust to retirement, started teaching brain aerobics 2 1/2 years ago in response to a senior's request. She did some research and compiled a set of puzzles, games and word problems from books and the Internet. She regularly adds new puzzles and teasers to add to her curriculum.

One of the benefits Thompson sees in her curriculum is that it pushes seniors to think critically and challenge themselves. But the greatest benefit, she says, may have less to do with the activity and more to do with the spirit of camaraderie it prompts: Seniors work through problems together, calling on the group trivia expert to take the lead on some puzzles and the team wordsmith on others.

"This is a great opportunity to meet people," Thompson says. "And part of this is about being able to be a social person and maintain that connection with other people."

Despite the investment of time and money that baby boomers are plowing into brain fitness, there's little science to underpin it. A few weak studies suggest brain games might offer some benefit, said Scott Turner, a neurologist and the director of Georgetown University's Memory Disorders Program. But "there are no large studies that are well controlled and independently funded indicating this."

Yet Turner recommends that seniors stay mentally active, engaging in stimulating activities that they enjoy. "I do this based on the fact that it probably will not hurt them," he said. "It's especially good if it's a social activity that gets them interacting with others." Adds Fernandez, of SharpBrains: "Even if these products don't have evidence backing them, they are better than staring at a wall all day."

Turner cautioned against activities that are too mentally strenuous, which could induce anxiety or panic. Fernandez said that the wide variety of products on the market can cause confusion about which ones are worthwhile.

More options for exercising the brain are on the way. Last year, the Ontario government pledged about $8 million to develop a brain fitness center in Toronto. In San Francisco, Jan Zivic, a former executive search consultant, opened a center, vibrantBrains, that offers memory improvement classes and workshops. Zivic was inspired by help she got from brain fitness games she played after being injured in an automobile accident.

Locally, Holy Cross Hospital has a "memory academy" based on "The Memory Bible," a self-help book by a neurologist at UCLA's Center for Aging. The hospital started offering the academy in September 2007 and now has about 30 instructors who teach its five-week class at senior centers in Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties.

Several senior residential centers in the area also have computer labs where seniors can play brain games.

At Walter Reed, Brain Aerobics has become increasingly popular. "A couple weeks ago we had almost 20 people," Thompson said. "A couple years ago we were lucky to get three at a time."

The center also offers a brain fitness class called Cranium Crunches, and at another Arlington County senior center, Thompson teaches a memory class where seniors discuss recollections. "A lot of these boomers are used to being in a working environment and a very mentally stimulating environment," Thompson said. "As they retire, there is more and more interest in programs like these, as they want to keep their minds and bodies active."

On her way out of her brain aerobics class recently, Rosenblum started talking with another senior. "We talked about meeting again sometime and maybe going to a museum," Rosenblum said. "I often see the same people at different classes, and we get to talking." But she kept the chat short.

It was time for her to head to the Lee Senior Center and play some Wii.


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