A Nintendo for Grandma

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When Nintendo’s marketing team set up a booth at the AARP convention this fall, it was a drastic departure for the video-game seller, which generally targets a far younger demographic. The goal was getting senior citizens excited about Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day. The game, based on a Japanese neuroscientist’s research, has already sold more than 600,000 units in the Americas since its release in April, and that has industry executives paying attention. The over-50 set is a largely untapped and potentially lucrative market, and toy and gaming companies are starting to court the boomer generation with products claiming to help sharpen memory and cognitive ability.

“People are realizing that lifestyle can protect not just their hearts but also their brains,” says Dr. Gary Small, the director of UCLA’s Center on Aging. This month, Radica, a subsidiary of Mattel, is rolling out Brain Games, a handheld device containing word hunt, memory and sequence games, based on Dr. Small’s research. “This is a far cry from what Mattel would typically do,” says Chris Wilson, Radica’s vice president of marketing. Other products include Sharp Electronic’s new EL-T100B Brain Exerciser, which challenges users with math drills meant to increase blood flow to the brain. And CogniFit, winner of the 2007 American Society on Aging’s Business and Aging Award, is courting retirement homes interested in purchasing its MindFit software.

Above Dr. Small’s desk, a printed note stuck to the wall reminds him that, “Every 8 seconds a Baby Boomer turns 50.” According to a recent MetLife Foundation survey, Americans over the age of 55 fear Alzheimer’s more than any other disease besides cancer. But researchers no longer accept the notion that memory loss is inevitable. Instead, they urge senior citizens to exercise their minds. “Baby boomers are reaching that age group where they have memory issues,” says Dr. Small. “It’s a proactive generation. They want to stay healthy and do things that will keep them at the top of their game.”

In December the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study indicating that seniors who practice certain cognitive exercises demonstrate improved memory over a five-year period. Such studies are stirring up enthusiasm among boomers and game makers. Elizabeth Edgerly, who leads the Alzheimer Association’s “Maintain Your Brain” program, explains that while no research proves any specific game prevents senility, “some of [the games] sound very interesting and like they could be a lot of fun and that their focus makes a lot of sense.”

“Whether or not it staves off senile dementia is a question that has to be answered with more research,” says Dr. Sheldon Zinberg, founder of the Nifty after Fifty senior fitness center in Whittier, Calif. “But that it improves your current ability to think a little quicker... I really believe that.” The center offers physical and mental fitness facilities, including Happy Neuron computer games and a driving simulator. “I believe in a program that caters to older people, where you have some sort of supervision,” says Irmgard Bassen, 80, who works out at Zinberg’s fitness center three times a week. “I’m living by myself and I want to be self-sufficient. I want to be able to do this until I drop dead.”

CogniFit’s Yossi Mazel says their game, MindFit, is tailored to each person’s profile. “As you go through the training,” Mazel says, “the difficulty and the challenge of the exercises is adapted to your learning curve.” Individuals can purchase the software at www.e-mindfitness.com, but the company is primarily marketing to retirement and assisted living facilities.

When Jewish Home residents Lino Zambrano, Suzanne May and Dorothy Creager tested handheld games for TIME, they favored the Sharp calculator, mostly because they were familiar with the technology. Creager had a hard time reading numbers off the screen in some Brain Games exercises. A company representative says the unit’s $20 price explains why it’s less sleek than Brain Age, which is a $150 commitment because users must first buy Nintendo DS.

In order to increase baby boomers’ comfort level, Brain Age players hold the Nintendo console like a book and answer questions using a stylus or speaking them aloud. May expressed enthusiasm over the drawing exercises and Sudoku puzzles. Yet, even Brain Age encounters glitches, often misreading numbers and letters penned with the stylus. This frustrated Zambrano, who enjoyed the Nintendo game offerings but felt “it confuses what you remember with your penmanship.”

Overall, the three were excited about playing handheld games for the first time in their lives. And fun is important at the age of 86, says Creager, adding, “I don’t know what old is. When I die at 120, I’ll be young.”