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Seniors Series: Activities keep minds, bodies well-tuned

With new brain games, seniors can go online to improve cognitive skills

Once over the hill, we pick up speed -- so the joke goes. This may be so, but seniors today aim at slowing down the process, by eating right and exercising their brains as well as their bodies.

The Pleasanton Senior Center offers a drop-in program called Brain Matters from 10-11:30 a.m. the first and third Fridays of the month, with word games, puzzles and other challenging activities geared at "age-proofing" minds.

"It's an opportunity to work on trivia with volunteer facilitators," said recreation coordinator Raymond Figueroa.

But he finds that seniors pursue physical as well as mental exercise.

"I've studied gerontology, and as the new baby boomers are entering their senior years, a lot are looking for fitness classes," Figueroa said. "We have noticed the trend all of our health and wellness classes are at capacity. Our fall prevention exercises, all are brimming. That's sort of the buzz, to keep physically active."

He pointed out that advanced classes, especially line dancing and Zumba, stimulate the mind, too, as participants memorize the intricate patterns.

The Internet has stepped up to improve our brain functions, with its unique capabilities to provide constantly increasing challenges.

Lumosity.com, perhaps the most well-known brain training website, features fun and stimulating games to improve cognitive functions, such as memory and attention. It collaborates with researchers from 36 universities around the world on the Human Cognition Project, to develop and measure its training programs.

For free, Lumosity sends participants three brain games each day. For a fee, Lumosity provides five personalized workout games a day, more than 40 games on computers, more than 10 games on iPhones and iPads, and a full training history.

Alison Beggs, 66, a retired math teacher at Iron Horse Middle School in San Ramon, said her son-in-law, who uses Lumosity while waiting at airports, told her about it. She also sees a lot of ads for it, she noted.

"I thought it looked like something that could be entertaining and challenging, and good for the neurological health of the soon-to-be-elderly," Beggs said.

"First I used the free app on my phone," she recalled. "Now I pay for it and do it on the computer. It's a huge entertainment source, but the motivation was to keep myself sharp."

She was also interested in the ability to compare her performance with other people the same age.

"I waited for a while until I reached that point and was brave enough to compare myself," Beggs said with a laugh. "When it works out well, it is very empowering."

Each game starts out slowly then becomes increasingly complex and speedier.

"It is every bit as demanding as being engaged in a conversation where you have to be concerned with what you say," Beggs remarked. "And there are areas you don't exercise normally."

Beggs, who started out her career as an educational psychologist, had previously played Words with Friends on her iPhone, a Scrabble-type game that can be engaged in with acquaintances or strangers.

"I don't like video games," Beggs said. "I like educational games that clearly have a purpose and if you practice, you can get better."

She engages in Lumosity daily and doesn't let herself stop until she's bettered her previous score in at least one category.

"I like the fact that there is always a goal. I've always been goal-oriented," Beggs said. "This is what I did last time -- I wonder if I will be able to match that."

She finds the enhanced Lumosity is well worth its cost of $65 per year.

"I wanted to make sure my brain wouldn't rot," she said. "It's available to you, so why wouldn't you do this?"

Suzanne Gorham, a counselor at Senior Support Program of the Tri-Valley, noted that UC San Francisco studies are showing that a video game designed to improve cognitive control can reverse some of the negative effects of aging.

The researchers were looking for scientific support to the burgeoning field of brain fitness, which is sometimes faulted for lack of proof that brain games result in lasting or meaningful changes, according to an article by Laura Kurtzman posted in September at www.ucsf.edu.

In the video game, called NeuroRacer, participants race a car around a track; road signs keep popping up, and "drivers" must respond to them by pushing buttons, which requires multitasking. Kurtzman reported that after 12 hours of playing the game over a month's time, the participants, ages 60 to 85, improved dramatically and were able to perform better than subjects in their 20s playing for the first time.

NeuroRacer also improves the working memory and sustained attention of those who played regularly.

The game, like those on Lumosity, continues to challenge the brain, stepping up the exercises so users can never go on auto-pilot.

"I have heard that the most important thing to take care of the brain is to try new things," Gorham said. "Crossword puzzles are fine but will not help as much if it is the only thing you do. Learning new things and using different parts of the brain is important.

"The other thing about the brain is to feed and nurture it well with good nutrition, water, exercise, etc.," she added.

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