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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 ( 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

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:

Read pre­vi­ous arti­cles here:

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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