Older people flock to online game sites to counter memory loss

Janie Erickson and Cliff Curtice dance together at the Mission Oaks Community Center in Carmichael. Saying she has to pay attention to the steps, Erickson calls dancing “the best thing I do.”
Janie Erickson and Cliff Curtice dance together at the Mission Oaks Community Center in Carmichael. Saying she has to pay attention to the steps, Erickson calls dancing “the best thing I do.” bnguyen@sacbee.com

An aging population has a lot to worry about: cancer, heart disease, financial insecurity.

High on that list is dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Angst among seniors and millions of aging baby boomers over mental decline is helping to turn online brain games into big business.

The website Lumosity, for instance, claims 70 million members in 180 countries. Subscribers pay $11.95 a month – less for a long-term plan – to play games the company says are “designed by neuroscientists to exercise memory and attention.”

Lumosity says a game called Word Bubbles improves tip-of-the-tongue memory as you search your brain for words starting with the same letter combination. Another called Memory Matrix asks you to recreate patterns of tiled squares. It’s meant to improve “spatial working memory and object recall.”

“The Lumosity training program exposes your brain to gradually increasing levels of challenges, adapting game difficulty to your individual ability level,” San Francisco-based Lumos Labs said via email in response to an interview request. “Our more than 40 games are based on a combination of common neuropsychological and cognitive tasks, many of which have been used in research for decades, and new tasks designed by an in-house science team.”

With Lumosity’s success, a host of other sites have popped up offering the equivalent of a gym membership for the mind.

Whether these brain-training programs offer any real, lasting benefit remains unclear. Scientific opinion varies. Some experts recommend the games. Others say they can’t hurt. Still others suggest patients leave their computers and hit the dance floor instead.

“Some neurologists say (Lumosity) doesn’t do anything. They don’t think it’s helpful. But there is some evidence it’s helpful, and it’s certainly not harmful,” said Shawn Kile, a cognitive neurologist and co-director of the Sutter Neuroscience Institute Memory Clinic in Sacramento.

Kile said he recommends Lumosity and similar brain games to patients he thinks might benefit.

“In general, when it comes to recommendations for patients suffering mild memory loss, I do encourage patients to try brain games or to try websites like Lumosity,” Kile said. “The notion or concept is you’re reinforcing synapses or connectivity in the brain and developing new connections when you learn new things.”

“When it comes to brain function,” he said, “it’s use it or lose it.”

Jan Lee, 61, said that’s why she started using Lumosity when she retired from teaching English at Sacramento City College about a year and a half ago.

“I’m an avid reader, but my mom was an avid reader, too, and she ended up with dementia,” Lee said. “It’s always in the back of my mind that I have to do something different from what she did.”

Lee, who lives in East Sacramento, gives her brain a “workout” on Lumosity four or five times a week for about 30 minutes at a time.

Phyllis Mills, 79, follows a similar routine. The Greenhaven resident is also a retired professor; she taught nursing at California State University, Sacramento. Mills said she plays bridge and attends book club meetings but wanted more in the way of brain exercise.

A doctor had recommended Lumosity to a friend in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Mills said she heard advertisements for the website on National Public Radio and decided to sign up. For the past 10 or 11 months, she has sat before her computer several times a week and played Lumosity’s brain games for about 30 minutes a session.

“I have to do it in the morning,” she said. “At my age I do all brain things in the morning. By afternoon, my brain is tired.” She said she doesn’t think her memory has improved but believes the games have helped prevent further decline.

“As you get older, you get forgetful,” she said. “Everyone in my age group is concerned with forgetting where we put our keys.”

At 84, Janie Erickson, of Fair Oaks, said she makes sure always to leave her keys in the same spot so she won’t misplace them. She concentrates when she walks down the stairs so she doesn’t fall. And she reminds herself why she’s heading to another room so she doesn’t arrive perplexed.

“I go out to the pantry and say, ‘Why am I here?’” Erickson said. “I remind myself until I get there I’m after a can.”

Crossword puzzles, Scrabble games and fish oil supplements are part of her memory-maintenance plan. But Erickson said the most valuable thing she does to keep her mind alert is to go out dancing. Twice a week she meets other seniors at the Mission Oaks Community Center in Carmichael to dance to a live band.

“That’s the best thing I do – is exercise and mingling with people,” she said. “You have to pay attention to the steps. I have a partner, so I have to do whatever he does (but in reverse). You have to concentrate. You don’t want to fall down.”

Dr. Charles DeCarli, director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center, said Erickson is on to something.

“Dancing for older people is awesome. It does so many good things. It has a modest cardiovascular load. It does wonderful things for timing and balance. You get socializing. You get all of the bennies. I think we all should be dancing.”

To achieve those benefits, dancing has to be “something more than shake your booty,” he said. “It can be hip-hop, anything, but it should be a dance protocol.”

DeCarli said he’s skeptical about online brain games, but understands the lure. The risk of Alzheimer’s is a major source of anxiety for boomers in their 50s and 60s, just behind cancer, he said.

“People say, ‘What can I do to stave off dementia?’ Be healthy,” DeCarli said. “If you’re 75 and want to learn to play piano, fantastic. If you’re healthy and want to do anything to keep your brain engaged, that’s good. But I’m not aware of any study to date to suggest that people who play Lumosity have a lower risk for dementia.

“A lifetime of a Mediterranean-type diet and a lifetime of exercise” have been shown to lower that risk, he said. “If you treat your body well, and are mentally engaged throughout your lifetime, that offers some protection.”

Call The Bee’s Hudson Sangree, (916) 321-1191.

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