Use it or lose it

All eyes are trained on the wall-mounted TV as colourful balloons sporting various numbers spin and dance around the screen.

Leora Szuch

All eyes are trained on the wall-mounted TV as colourful balloons sporting various numbers spin and dance around the screen. Players call out the numbers, lowest to highest, and the activities co-ordinator clicks a remote to burst the balloons as the answers come fast and furious.

“Good job, guys,” Felicia Forbes calls to her charges as the video game displays their score on the flat screen, before advancing to a subtraction exercise.

But this isn’t a group of preschoolers learning their numerals. These players are seniors in a long-term care residence and their session with Wii Big Brain Academy is not only a chance for some fun and socializing — it’s serious business, too.

“I think it’s wonderful. It makes you think and it keeps you active,” says resident Florence Brook, 88. “You have to think and you really have to push yourself.”

The former Toronto homemaker, who has outlived both her husband and son, believes playing the Nintendo game and such mind-flexing board games as Scrabble is helping her to stay mentally sharp.

And Brook is not alone.

Based on the premise of “use it or lose it,” more and more seniors and increasingly their baby boomer counterparts are trying to keep their brains in fighting trim with crossword puzzles, Sudoku and video games.

What’s driving the trend are claims that exercising neurons and their connections may help stave off the development of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

And that fear of losing one’s faculties with age has fuelled an explosion in spending on cognitive-fitness games like Brain Academy, Brain Age and Mindfit.

Sharpbrains, an online market research company focused on the mental fitness market, estimates that sales of cognition-enhancing products ballooned to $80 million in 2007 from $5 million just two years earlier. Company co-founder and CEO Alvaro Fernandez predicts that by 2015, the industry should reach $2 billion in annual sales.

But is this surge in popularity based on science or merely a product of marketing hoopla?

Dr. Donald Stuss, vice-president of research at Baycrest in Toronto, says not that long ago, scientists thought the brain “was fixed” after it had reached full development in childhood.

But in the last 15 years, studies have shown that the brain has far more plasticity than previously believed, and can even grow new neurons under certain conditions.

For instance, patients with an area of brain damage caused by stroke can recover lost functions as different areas take over or are recruited to perform certain tasks, says Stuss. Research at Baycrest has shown that can even occur in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Whatever you do will be helpful . . . because we know the more active you are, whatever you do it will have some potential benefit,” he says of giving the neurons regular workouts.

Yet there is no scientific proof for many of these brain-fitness games that they actually improve cognitive ability over the long-term, experts say. Carefully controlled clinical trials to prove their worth haven’t been done.

And certainly, stresses Stuss, any claims that a brain game can prevent Alzheimer’s or other dementias are unfounded.

What is known is that the onset of dementia symptoms can be delayed by keeping mentally active. For instance, a Baycrest study has shown that people with higher education levels begin exhibiting symptoms a few years later than those with less education — but once they start, cognitive decline is faster.

“You cannot stop the disease. It’s not a cure,” he says, noting that the best way to try to prevent dementia in later years is to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly throughout life.

Still, Janise Smith, owner of a Home Instead Senior Care location in Toronto, believes that keeping the mind active, especially when coupled with social interaction, can have noticeable benefits.

As part of her business — Home Instead’s 22 Canadian locations provide personal care and housekeeping services to seniors in their own homes and long-term care residences — Smith has seen the dividends first-hand.

One elderly woman’s family hired staff to play Scrabble with her at home once a week.

“As the weeks go on, we find her getting a lot more talkative, a lot sharper in terms of her memory,” says Smith. “It really is a true thing in terms of if you don’t use it, you lose it because we’ve seen marked improvement.”

But she believes part of the reason seniors profit cognitively from engaging in brain-fitness games is the social interaction involved.

Wexford resident Keith McCourd, 76, has embraced both Brain Academy and a bowling game that sends a virtual ball down the alley on the screen, mimicking the arm motion of a player via the remote control.

Demonstrating the game, the former sawmill worker from Espanola, Ont., scores a spare.

“It’s so real, it’s unreal,” he says of the video game that works both the brain and the muscles. “This bowling is like being back and having a little sport and fun.”

McCourd, who had a stroke three years ago that partially paralyzed one side of his body and slightly impaired his speech, also looks forward to Brain Academy sessions.

“It’s good stuff, especially for old folks,” he says with a mischievous chuckle. “If you make a mistake, nobody boos. It’s just a good, fun game, a group game and makes you think fast. That’s what I like about it. If you don’t think fast enough, someone else answers and there you go.”

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