Admit it. You've had a few senior moments. Struggling to remember a key fact that would have served as a cup of shut-the-hell-up for your egghead brother-in-law. Straining to remember the name of that guy from the New York office. Leaving your phone in a cab in San Francisco.
Actually this kind of stuff happens to people of all ages, and it can be caused by poor mental fitness. But of course, there's an app for that.
The first thing experts tell you about brain fitness tech is that the mind needs a workout to stay sharp and feel good, just as the body does. That sounded "truthy" to me, but I wanted to know whether a real scientific rationale exists to back up the claim.
Your brain really does need a workout
The answer is yes. The exercises in brain fitness apps like BrainHQ and Lumosity produce real physical and bioelectrical changes in the brain, says Dr. Argye Hillis, director of cerebrovascular neurology at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She explained it to me this way:
"The brain is remarkably plastic. It's capable of making new connections and becoming better and better at older ones. As humans, we continue to learn as we grow older. We learn by changing the strengths of the connections between various neurons in the brain. When we learn new things, we are forcing one neuron to activate with another one. The more often we do that, the less energy it takes to make that connection."
Of the brain fitness software I've been playing with, mobile apps like Brain Age and A Clockwork Brain offer a small set of exercises--often a gamified memory or focus exercise--while subscription-based sites like Lumosity and BrainHQ offer a wide array of exercises that focus on different sets of neural pathways in the brain.
These apps and sites usually offer some combination of problem-solving, short-term memory, quick decision-making, cognition, attention, and multitasking games. Some of them, like bLife, include touchy-feely kinds of tools that promote relaxation, positive thinking, and mental well-being.
So which are worth recommending? Since so many of the products are based on peer-reviewed studies of brain fitness tools, I don't doubt that numerous apps and sites are effective. I chose the ones that have been around the longest, enjoy the best reputations among users and experts, have the most science behind them, and offer the best designs.
Above all, good brain fitness tools should offer a careful mixture of real work and real play--the work to truly improve mental fitness, and the play to keep you coming back for more. Just as with physical workouts, the frequency of your workouts is as important as their intensity.
Desktop brain fitness products
Like many competing products, Lumosity was developed by a team of neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists. But it seems to get the lion's share of the press among brain fitness apps--and for good reason. Dr. Hillis says Lumosity is one of the services she has recommended to patients.
Lumos Labs calls Lumosity a "gym for your brain." The site's brain exercises focus on five main areas: memory, attention, speed, flexibility, and problem solving. You start by filling in a sort of mental profile survey, and Lumosity builds an exercise routine for you based on your answers.
In one Lumosity game, I was asked to remember where a bird showed up on the screen, as well as the number that blinked on at the same time in the middle of the screen. In another, I was given a word root ("at") and asked to make as many words as I could from it ("attack, atmosphere, atom"). For each word, I got more points, with longer words scoring higher.
Lumosity constantly keeps track of your "workouts" and measures your progress in a BPI (Brain Performance Index). It has a social layer too, so you can measure your results and progress against what other users are doing.
A subscription costs $15 per month, and a lifetime membership goes for $240--the same as 16 months of $15 monthly subscriptions. Discounted two-year and family plans are available as well.
BrainHQ from Posit Science offers another suite of brain exercises designed to increase your mental sharpness and help you fight memory loss. The BrainHQ exercises fall into six general categories: memory, navigation, intelligence, attention, people skills, and brain speed.
One of the memory exercises resembled Concentration. I was instructed to click on one of a series of cards on the screen, remember the spoken word that resulted, then match the card with other cards that made the same sound. The game started with a set of just four cards, but then increased the number of cards to make matches harder to remember.
A game in the navigation section presented me with two side-by-side shapes and asked me to rotate one of the shapes to create a mirror image with the other one.
In the "people skills" section, I was instructed to listen in on a conversation between three people and remember what things were said and which person said them. This task was harder than it looked--and to be a good witness, I had to pay close attention to the conversation.
You can buy a year-long subscription for $96 (which works out to $8 per month), or you can pay $14 month-by-month for access. The free iPad app lets you subscribe via in-app purchase, but no Android or iPhone apps are available.
The Dakim name came up a lot when I was researching brain fitness tech. It's one of the oldest brain fitness products, having been around since the early 2000s. Dan Michel originally developed the Dakim BrainFitness software ($249) as a way to help his dad fight off Alzheimer's.
Dakim, which is aimed at Baby Boomers and seniors, differs from other brain fitness products in that Michel himself guides users through the exercises, acting as narrator, coach, and tour guide. The resulting experience seems especially well suited to older users.
The program organizes its exercises into six cognitive areas, including short-term memory, long-term memory, language, computation, visuospatial orientation, and critical thinking. Altogether Dakim offers more than 100 exercises, and many of them use music, humor, movie clips, stories, and trivia to keep things fun. In the memory section, for instance, I was shown pictures of famous people like Abe Lincoln and Ella Fitzgerald, and given little-known factoids about each one. Later, I had to match the facts with the people.
I liked Dakim mostly for the warmth and patience Michel brings to each session. Also, the games were more engaging because of the popular culture and history aspects of the questions.
According to Dakim, you can complete its "comprehensive brain workout" in just 20 minutes a day, and the exercise can reduce cognitive decline by up to 63 percent. A UCLA research team recently studied 69 people from retirement communities who played Dakim BrainFitness games, and found that 52 of them showed improved memory and language skills.
bLife takes a slightly more social and spiritual approach to brain health. Focusing on "building resilience at a neurological and physiological level," the exercises aim to help you stay positive, sleep better, and have more-satisfying relationships. bLife says these elements have to be in place before real mental fitness can happen.
After I took a personality appraisal survey that included questions like, "Do you spend a lot of time thinking about events in the past?" the site offered me a customized action plan for a $15 monthly subscription. For me the plan comprised a new set of questions every day on two variable topics (today's topics were "Breathe Deeply" and "Social Check-in"), followed by a couple of 5-minute recorded meditations on those subjects, which I found to be thoughtful and relaxing.
Apps for phones and tablets
Brain Exercise, one of the oldest brain fitness apps, got its start as Brain Age on the Nintendo DS handheld console. Now available for iOS devices, the app consists of a series of simple puzzle games based on the research of world-famous neurologist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. An animated version of the good doctor guides you through a daily regimen of puzzles.
The puzzles were fun, though a little frustrating at times, and I liked how Dr. Kawashima tells you at the beginning of each one what brain function it will exercise. A newly added feature lets you play against a few friends.
Brain Age is one of the better-known brain fitness apps, mainly because it grades your mental fitness level by calculating your "brain age" in years--a "younger" brain is better. Although this sounds like the Nintendo DS game mentioned above, the mobile Brain Age game is completely unrelated.
The puzzles come in three types: memory, concentration, and arithmetic. They're simple and colorful, like the one in which you're asked to click a set of colored balls in the order in which they appeared on the screen. The graphics aren't as good as on some of the other brain fitness apps I've played, but the games are fun to play.
A Clockwork Brain
The host of this popular brain fitness app is a brass-plated robot named Sprocket, who presides in a steampunk-style classroom. The iOS app has a limited free version and an expanded premium version ($3). You get 13 brain fitness exercises, designed to test various cognitive abilities such as visual, spatial, logic, language, arithmetic, and memory.
The games in A Clockwork Brain aren't radically different from the others here, but the lovingly crafted steampunk design makes the experience unique. And the fun factor is pretty high: You feel mentally tested while playing, but the exercises are so nicely gamified that A Clockwork Brain can start to get a little addictive.
Find what works for you
After doing some searches in the app stores, I found many, many apps that offer some sort of gamified brain exercise. Some of the apps were cleverly named to increase their likelihood of being mistaken for well-known apps like Brain Age. I came away thinking that there is probably no clearly superior brain fitness app or service. As in the physical exercise world, it comes down to finding the exercise that offers you a legitimate workout and yet is enjoyable enough to keep you coming back.
Finally, Dr. Hillis points out that computer- and phone-based brain fitness products are not the only way to keep your brain in shape. "It's not that people couldn't get this sort of stimulation on their own," Hillis says. "They can do it by doing things like playing bridge, learning a new language, or taking some other education course."
But Dr. Hillis believes that brain fitness apps do offer something that other types of brain exercise do not. "What these sites do offer is some structure, and people need structure. Most of these sites will record your performance for you. People want that kind of feedback. They want to know that they are making progress."