Note to Brain: Get Down and Give Me 50!

Brain fitness programs are expanding, making a visit to the fitness gym increasingly common.

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What's your dementia defense? Mine is the Daily Jumble in my newspaper. When I can quickly rearrange the five-letter and, especially, the six-letter jumbled letters into words (real ones, mind you), I am confident of taking on whatever life has to throw at me that day. And if I do poorly, which I do with regularity, it's like seeing my shadow on Groundhog Day. Back into the cave.

Whether we admit it or not, nearly everyone on the north side of AARP membership age has senior moments and concerns about their mental acuity. It doesn't help much that the fear of Alzheimer's Disease has been seized upon by Big Pharma and conveyed with what seems to be incessant frequency in commercial messages for various pills. I believe in free enterprise; I really do. But I just don't like how the drug companies prey upon our fears. I don't know anyone who does.

But the fact is that millions of Boomers have entered or are bearing down on their 60s. Before the market meltdown, I would have said we were headed for retirement. Now, I'm not sure where we're headed, but it's not toward any traditional retirement experience. It does, however, appear that we are headed for the Brain Gym in a major way. A mental fitness industry is evolving and looks like a big Boomer trend to me. We've come to accept the benefits of physical exercise and now this "use it or lose it" psychology has come to the world of brain twisters and teasers as well. Who knew that doing crosswords was like treating your brain to some Omega-3 oil? (Actually, I bet a lot of people did but that was before it was trendy.)

SharpBrains is both a result and cause of this trend, providing research and support for the nascent industry. Headed and co-founded by Alvaro Fernandez, SharpBrains is a good place to spend some time if you think mental fitness "workouts" may make sense for you. First, the site has put together its list of 10 questions to ask before selecting a fitness program:

1. Are there scientists, ideally neuropsychologists, and a scientific advisory board behind the program? Neuropsychologists specialize in measuring and understanding human cognition and brain structure and function.

2. Are there published, peer-reviewed scientific papers in PubMed written by those scientists? How many? PubMed is a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine that includes millions of citations in science journals. If a scientist has not published a paper that appears in that database, he or she cannot make scientific claims.

3. What are the specific benefits claimed for using this program? What specific cognitive skill is the program training? Some programs present the benefits in such a nebulous way that it is impossible to tell if they will have any results or not. "Brain training" itself is a limited benefit, because activities like gardening or learning a new language provide "brain training" too. You need to see something more specific, like what cognitive or emotional skill that program is aimed at.

4. Does the program tell me what part of my brain or which cognitive skill I am exercising, and is there an independent assessment to measure my progress? The question is whether the improvement experienced in the program will transfer into real life. For that to happen we need assessments that are distinct from the exercises themselves.

5. Is it a structured program with guidance on how many hours per week and days per week to use it? Cognitive training, or "brain exercise", is not a magic pill. You have to do the exercises in order to benefit, so you need clarity on the effort required.

6. Do the exercises vary and teach me something new? The only way to exercise important parts of our brain is by tackling novel challenges.

7. Does the program challenge and motivate me, or does it feel like it would become easy once I learned it? Good brain exercise requires increasing levels of difficulty.

8. Does the program fit my personal goals? Each individual has different goals and needs when it comes to brain health. For example, some want to manage anxiety, others to improve short-term memory.

9. Does the program fit my lifestyle? Some brain exercise programs have great short-term results but are very intense. Others may be better over time.

10. Am I ready and willing to do the program, or would it be too stressful? Excess stress reduces, or may even inhibit, neurogenesis - the creation of new neurons. So, it is important to make sure not to do things that stress us in unhealthy ways.

The site also includes lots of free brain teasers and exercises that might be a good way for you to see the kinds of things that you like to do, and perhaps the kind of program that might make sense. Last fall, SharpBrains looked at user comments and audience use of all its online exercises, and selected the 15 most popular. Here they are, plus links to their location on the SharpBrains site. Enjoy them, and if some of them get the better of you, I advise against the Groundhog Day response. Doesn't do much for your psyche.

Top 15 Brain Teasers and Games for Mental Exercise

1. Can you count?: Basketball attention experiment (Interactive).

2. Which way is the bus heading?.

3. Words in your brain: do you know where words are "stored" in your brain?.

4. Please Spot the Differences.

5. Do you think you know the colors?: Quick, try the Stroop Test.

6. Clinically proven Stress Management tip.

7. Riddle for the Whole Brain: The Blind Beggar.

8. What is going on with these pictures?.

9. Brain Teasers for the Weekend: a few challenges to exercise your attention and working memory.

10. Consider Linda's job prospects: riddle, or obvious?.

11. Count the Fs in this sentence.

12. Please find the missing number here.

13. How many... exercise your Frontal and Parietal lobes.

14. Mental Imagery and Spatial Rotation challenge.

15. Enjoy this Sunday Afternoon Quiz.