Keeping aging brains nimble

Toronto’s Baycrest centre is staking a claim to a piece of the booming brain fitness market with a new company, Cogniciti, and a new generation of brain games aimed at helping baby boomers keep their minds sharp and boost their productivity in the workplace well into old age.

Alvaro Fernandez

Alvaro Fernandez

Toronto’s Baycrest centre is staking a claim to a piece of the booming brain fitness market with a new company, Cogniciti, and a new generation of brain games aimed at helping baby boomers keep their minds sharp and boost their productivity in the workplace well into old age.

Think of this as a precursor of what may soon be the hottest new craze in the aging workplace — brain fitness centres where you can get your cognitive skills tested and tweaked in a way that will help you think faster, focus better, remember more and maybe even fight off the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s until well into the golden years.

The joint venture between Baycrest and MaRS is also meant to show the world that Ontario can lead the way in turning cutting-edge research into commercial tools that can help tackle the biggest social issue of our times — the so-called “silver tsunami” of baby boomers about to reach the age of 65 who aren’t ready to retire.

“Canada can own the podium in this field,” says Alvaro Fernandez, an expert on the fast-growing brain fitness market.

“This is going to be more meaningful for society than some medals at the Olympics,” Fernandez says.

The world-renowned cognitive science institute has partnered with MaRS, Canada’s innovation incubator, and will test market a workplace brain fitness program next year called Memory(at)Work that’s grounded in 20 years of brain research showing you can live smarter, and better, if you exercise your grey matter the way you do your muscles.

Web-based brain games and memory exercises you can perform on a mobile device during the mind-numbing commute to work will be test marketed in 2011 and 2012.

By targeting programs at the workplace, Cogniciti could give senior executives a much better chance of staying ahead of “young, ambitious workers breathing down their necks,” says Baycrest president and CEO William Reichman, in announcing the joint venture at the Business of Aging Summit, a meeting of about 200 international experts to discuss the big business baby boomers represent.

The commercial enterprise is a “natural evolution” for cutting-edge cognitive researchers at the Baycrest Centre for Brain Fitness, said Reichman, which was launched last year with $10 million from the Ontario government and $10 million in private donations. Any profits eventually generated by Cogniciti will go back into the work of Baycrest and MaRS, he says.

Brain fitness games such as Nintendo’s Brain Age, Posit Science and Lumosity have become popular with boomers looking to stretch their minds and memories beyond the old paper-and-pencil crosswords and Sudoku puzzles.

That’s why the brain fitness market is expected to hit $5 billion or more by 2015, compared with $265 million in 2008, Fernandez says.

New players are upping the ante all the time, with almost no scientific data to support claims the games not only help you avoid the normal symptoms of aging, such as forgetting your keys, but can also return your memory to what it was 10 years ago, simply by playing the games as little as 15 minutes a day, three times a week.

But Baycrest brings something to the online experience that no one else does, said Reichman — two decades of brain research and a commitment that it will not bring any product to market without solid scientific proof that it works.

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