As aging baby boomers look to keep on working, producers of `brain fitness' software—aimed at improving memory and keeping the mind sharp—see an opportunity to pitch their products to employers.
Software tools to keep the brain fit are headed to the workplace.
The products have been making a splash in the consumer market in recent years as older Americans wrestle with memory loss and other cognitive declines. And now vendors of "brain fitness" software are beginning to see employers as another fertile market, especially given the desire of baby boomers to stay in the workforce for years to come.
A host of challenges face this nascent industry. They include doubts about the effectiveness of the software, concerns that exercises in front of a computer will bore people, and the prospect that employees in their 40s, 50s and 60s will feel stigmatized signing up for what could be considered brain rehab.
But advocates are confident the burgeoning field of brain health is far more than a fad, and companies are likely to see significant benefits in areas such as productivity and retention through the use of the new software tools.
Posit Science, a San Francisco-based firm, says several employers are testing its software this year. Posit Science's Brain Fitness Program has been shown to improve the memory of people 60 years or older by 10 years or more, and the company's CEO, Jeff Zimman, expects solid results in corporate trials as well. "This is going to be a hot area," he says.
The brain fitness arena has its roots in scientific findings during the past two decades that the brain is fundamentally "plastic"—capable of rewiring itself even late in life. That's good news, because experts also note that brain functioning begins to fall off as early as age 25. Among the key researchers in the field is Posit Science founder Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco who was recently featured in a PBS program on brain fitness.
To combat the dulling of the mind and stave off the horrifying effects of dementia, a host of vendors now tout brain training software programs, including Happy Neuron.com, CogniFit, Posit Science and Fit Brains. Video game company Nintendo also is a player with its Brain Age software.
Posit Science expects solid results in corporate testing trials of its software. "This is going to be a hot area." --Jeff Zimman, CEO, Posit Science
The content of these programs varies. Happy Neuron.com, for example, offers games designed to work out five major brain functions: language, attention, memory, visual processing and "executive function," which includes logical reasoning. One of Happy Neuron's language games, "Split Words," asks users to match the parts of words divided into two or more sections, with the help of a general category for the session such as "gardening."
Fit Brains plans this month to introduce games for a range of cognitive functions. By the end of March, it intends to add games as well as other features such as brain fitness metrics.
Brain Age, built for the Nintendo DS mobile game device, runs users through activities such as solving math problems, playing sudoku puzzle games and reading literature aloud.
Posit Science, meanwhile, works to improve memory and train the brain on basic processing skills. In one activity, users are asked to listen to two tones played in rapid succession, then decide whether the second was higher or lower than the first.
The brain training software industry is new but promising. Brain Age and its sequel Brain Age 2 have together sold more than 14 million copies worldwide since 2005, says George Harrison, who was senior vice president of marketing at Nintendo of America before retiring from the company at the end of 2007. Nintendo's brain games are inspired by the work of Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, and they estimate the "age" of users' brains based on their performance. But the products are pitched primarily as fun, Harrison says. "We haven't done any scientific research to demonstrate any health claims," he says.
On the other end of the spectrum, Posit Science has had its software tested by researchers who have presented findings in scholarly journals and at conferences. In November, the company touted results of a study of 524 healthy adults 65 and older. Half of them completed up to 40 hours of the Posit Science program. The other half followed the advice that older people will benefit from new learning in different subject areas, and completed up to 40 hours of a computer-based educational training program on topics such as the history of Great Britain.
Those in the Posit Science group showed "significantly superior" gains in standardized, clinical measures of memory equal to roughly 10 years, the company said in a statement. The company also said participants in the Posit Science program showed significant gains in how they perceived their memory and cognitive abilities, such as remembering names and phone numbers or where they had left their keys, as well as communication abilities and feelings of self-confidence.
Even so, the degree to which software programs can slow the cognitive decline associated with aging has been questioned. Sandra Aamod, editor of the journal Nature Neuroscience, and Sam Wang, professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University, offered a critical view of the products in a November New York Times opinion piece. A better bet, the authors argued, is physical exercise.
"So instead of spending money on computer games or puzzles to improve your brain's health, invest in a gym membership," the authors wrote. "Or just turn off the computer and go for a brisk walk."
Some advocates for computer brain fitness products say software training should be part of a broader range of brain health activities, including walking and swimming.
Paul Nussbaum, a neuropsychologist and chief scientific officer of Fit Brains, suggests a five-part program for brain health, with attention to socializing, physical activity, mental stimulation, nutrition and spirituality.
Targeting the workforce
Until now, companies haven't paid much attention to brain health, Nussbaum says. He notes the way corporate health fairs typically have tables set up for diabetes and bone density. "There's nothing at these health fairs focused on the brain," he says.
Corporate training departments also have ignored sharpening basic employee mental skills such as memory or language processing.
The graying of the workforce may change that. The number of U.S. workers 55 and older is projected to grow by 46.7 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to a December report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate of expansion in the number of those older workers is nearly 5.5 times the 8.5 percent growth projected for the labor force overall. People 55 and older are expected to make up 23 percent of the workforce in 2016, up from 17 percent in 2006 and 12 percent in 1996.