If fitness centers were to live up to the name, shouldn't they contain more than stationary bikes, treadmills and free weights? After all, we can keep blood circulating and muscles toned as we age but, if we continue to blank out on names, numbers or the necessity that propelled us into a particular room (aka "senior moments"), will life at 90 really be worth living?
Of late, growing awareness about dementia, cognitive decline or Alzheimer's disease has heightened concerns about brain health. In June, Johns Hopkins reported that the number of Alzheimer's cases will quadruple by 2050. By then, one in 85 people worldwide will suffer from the disease.
Experts used to contend that the brain stopped making connections at about age 30. That view, however, is old hat. According to Dr. Sandra Chapman of the University of Texas at Dallas, recent neuroplasticity studies demonstrate, without a doubt, that brain cells and new pathways continue to develop throughout one's lifetime.
The nonprofit Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives noted that about one-fifth of 70-year-olds perform as well on cognitive tests as 20-year-olds.
A 2003 New England Journal of Medicine study reported that people older than 75 who danced, read or played board games or musical instruments faced a lower risk of dementia or Alzheimer's disease. One activity a week translated into a 7 percent reduction in risk. That figure rocketed to 63 percent for those who upped the number and frequency of activities.
We continue to learn even during our Golden Years, just differently from the all-nighter cram sessions that characterized our youth. We just have to accept that answers will come — as long as we adjust to puttering away in the slow lane.
Since American parents and grandparents were so easily seduced by the booming, multibillion-dollar "Smart-Wiring Your Baby's Brain" industry led by Baby Einstein, it was only a matter of time before Madison Avenue would deliver a cornucopia of Grandpa Einstein brain-enhancers as well.
Although Greatest Generation adults are shelling out the initial dollars, boomers, who are both computerphiles and obsessed with defying age, are the brain-training industry's new best friends.
During the past year, cognitive programs with names such as Lumosity (a scientifically developed 30-session online program at $79.95 a year), Happy Neuron (cyber-exercises designed "to make your mind sweat" at $99.95 a year), MyBrainTrainer ("the world's first virtual mental gymnasium" at $29.95 a year), Dakim's [m]Power (the "Let them lose their hair, figures, but not themselves" cognitive program that quizzes via an oldster-friendly touch screen at $2,499 plus $50 monthly fee), and Nintendo's Brain Age 2 (a $20 video game based on the theories of Japanese professor Ryuta Kawashima) promise to assist aging consumers with keeping/honing their mental edge.
Posit Science worked with 50 neuroscientists to design the Brain Fitness Program 2.0 ($395 single user version, $495 two-user version) that automatically adapts to the operator's level of ability. Clinical trials for this program were rigorous enough to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
CogniFit Ltd. of Israel, whose MindFit program ($149 per individual with discounts for additional family members) recently arrived in the United States, focuses on 14 cognitive functions including short-term memory, concentration, learning, perception, and attention. Recent studies substantiated CogniFit's claim that MindFit improved short-term memory by 18 percent.
The results of MindFit's clinical trials also suggest that cognitive training can alleviate depression associated with dementia, cognitive decline or Alzheimer's disease.
Last month, after University of Washington researchers concluded that Baby Einstein and other infant mind-stimulators might not live up to the hype, you might be wondering about brain-trainers created for the opposite end of the age spectrum.
If insurance companies are any indication, two have opted to spend big bucks on senior cerebral health. MetLife is currently distributing a 61-page book called "Love Your Brain" to its members and Humana (Medicare Advantage) is providing the Brain Fitness Program 2.0 to some four million older customers, either gratis or at a deep discount. In addition, Humana is offering "brain fitness camps" employing 2.0 software at both computer stores and community colleges.
Improved brain fitness should pay off big time as the nation wrestles with the mounting bills associated with an aging population. According to Sally Tisdale in "Harvest Moon: Portrait of a Nursing Home," 2 million Americans are housed in 24,000 homes at a cost of more than $30 billion. The longer folks can retain their mental faculties, however, the longer they can stay out of bank-account-draining care facilities.
Experts are predicting that a cerebral calisthenics explosion is coming to a fitness center near you. So, be of sound body and mind. You'd better be, if life at 90 is going to be really worth living.