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The Business and Ethics of the Brain Fitness Boom – Part 3: The Real Need

Engaging people where they are in the life-course

Eighty percent of the 38,000 adults over age 50 who were responders in the 2010 AARP Member Opinion Survey indicated “staying mentally sharp” was their top ranked interest and concern (Dinger, 2010). What exactly does this phrase mean? And what role can technology play in “staying mentally sharp”? Intel CEO Paul Otellini has said, “You have to start by thinking about what people want to do… and work backward.”

The growing interest in brain fitness presents a significant opportunity to build mental capital, enhance mental wellness, and delay symptoms of brain-based decline and disease.

In March 2008, AARP ran their Healthy@Home Survey (Barret, 2008) asking just under 1,000 responders, ages 65 and over (mean age of 74 years), and their caregivers about their perceptions of successful aging and technologies for successful aging. In a nutshell, the survey’s main findings were that older adults prioritize health and independence, that their obstacles have a strong cognitive or perceptual component, and that they are open to digital health technology.

In other words, the top priority for older adults is not anti-aging—it is about maintaining capacities to function independently. This is where recent cognitive science and digital tools can add more value: managing and enhancing “brain fitness” in the present and the near future—not just preventing or treating Alzheimer’s Disease thirty years from now.

What are some of the areas where people want more help with brain fitness? To answer this question, SharpBrains (www.sharpbrains.com) conducted a survey in March 2010 of our monthly newsletter subscribers (a group not representative of the population at large, but indicative of early adopters and decision makers). We received nearly 1,700 responses from respondents who were ages 40 and older.

When asked what were the most important brain functions necessary to thrive personally and professionally in the twenty-first century, respondents’ priorities covered a range of cognitive, emotional, and self-regulation functions, suggesting that brain fitness solutions will need to integrate all these domains—or at least be able to link their specific functional benefits to specific user priorities. It was interesting to contrast the top two ranked functions (“ability to manage stressful situations”; “concentration power to avoid distractions”) with the bottom two (“ability to multitask”; remembering faces and names”), which may debunk many myths about our assumptions of what people actually want and need. When asked for their beliefs about the effectiveness of certain habits and tools, respondents named intellectual challenges, aerobic exercise, and reading books as most effective, closely followed by meditation.

Simply stated: what people seem to want is help to enhance and prolong their functional mental capacity. The next step is to determine how older adults can best navigate through the brain fitness marketplace.

Empowering Professionals to Empower Consumers

Institutions and professionals in the field of aging have the daily task of helping consumers, patients, and caregivers navigate the available non-invasive options. Personalized assessments and advice are critical, since improvements experienced in therapy and training programs seem more likely to transfer to real life when a person targets the brain function(s) that are specifically relevant to their unique context and its bottlenecks or deficits (SharpBrains, 2011).

People have different needs and priorities, have varying lifestyles, and reside in particular cognitive environments: one size does not fit all.

I propose that institutions and professionals who must traverse this still-emerging, complex landscape first identify an individual’s particular bottlenecks or deficits, then seek the level of clinical validation for options (technology-based or not) that target those specific cognitive, emotional, or self-regulation functions. (See the list on page 68 that can help professionals evaluate brain fitness options.)

The other role professionals play is in educating and empowering consumers, patients, and caregivers to enhance their self-efficacy by making their own decisions. (Our SharpBrains 2009 consumer guide included a program evaluation checklist, excerpted in the box on this page; the full checklist is available at www.SharpBrains.com.)

In the absence of perfect answers—and we won’t have perfect answers for a while, if ever—today’s best course is to provide education and resources that facilitate informed decision making. Professionals in the field of aging are in a unique position to help parse the offerings in the rapidly evolving field of brain fitness.

How to Evaluate Brain Fitness Programs: A Consumer Checklist

Are there scientists and neuropsychologists, and a scientific advisory board behind the program?

  • Are there published, peer-reviewed scientific papers in mainstream scientific and professional journals written by those scientists? How many?
  • Does the program tell me what part of my brain or which cognitive skill I am exercising?
  • Is there an independent assessment tool to measure my progress?
  • Is it a structured program, with guidance on how many hours per week and days per week to use it?
  • Do the exercises vary and teach me something new?
  • Does the program challenge and motivate me, or does it feel like it would become easy once I learned it?
  • Does the program fit my personal goals?
  • Does the program fit my lifestyle?
  • Am I ready and willing to do the program, or would it be too stressful?

To Be Continued…

  • Tomor­row, Jan­u­ary 10th: Part 4 — The Future

You can track and dis­cuss each part as it becomes avail­able via my Twit­ter account, our Face­book pageLinkedIn group, and RSS feed. Enjoy, and please add your 2 cents!

Note: This is an excerpt from the Generations article  The Business and Ethics of the Brain Fitness Boom, by Alvaro Fernandez. Copyright © 2011 American Society on Aging; all rights reserved. This article may not be duplicated, reprinted or distributed in any form without written permission from the publisher: American Society on Aging, 71 Stevenson St., Suite 1450, San Francisco,CA 94105-2938; e-mail: info@asaging.org.

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