When David Bunnell, a magazine publisher who lives in Berkeley, went to a FedEx store to send a package a few years ago, he suddenly drew a blank as he was filling out the forms.
“I couldn’t remember my address,” said Bunnell, 60, with a measure of horror in his voice. “I knew where I lived, and I knew how to get there, but I didn’t know what the address was.”
Bunnell is among tens of millions of baby boomers who are encountering the signs, by turns amusing and disconcerting, that accompany the decline of the brain’s acuity: a good friend’s name suddenly vanishing from memory; a frantic search for eyeglasses only to find them atop the head; milk taken from the refrigerator then put away in a cupboard.
“It’s probably one of the most frightening aspects of the changes we undergo as we age,” said Nancy Ceridwyn, director of educational initiatives at the American Society on Aging. “Our memories are who we are. And if we lose our memories we lose that groundedness of who we are.”
At the same time, boomers are seizing on a mounting body of evidence that suggests that brains contain more plasticity than previously thought, and many people are taking matters into their own hands, doing brain fitness exercises with the same intensity with which they attack a treadmill.
Decaying brains, or the fear thereof, have inspired a mini-industry of brain health products — not just supplements like coenzyme Q10, ginseng and bacopa, but computer-based fitter-brain products as well. Nintendo’s US$19.99 Brain Age 2, a popular video game of simple math and memory exercises, is one. Posit Science’s US$395 computer-based “cognitive behavioral training” exercises are another. MindFit, a US$149 software-based program, combines cognitive assessment of more than a dozen different skills with a personalized training regimen based on that assessment. And for about US$10 a month, worried boomers can subscribe to Web sites like Lumosity.com and Happy-Neuron.com, which offer a variety of cognitive training exercises.
Alvaro Fernandez, whose brain fitness and consulting company, SharpBrains, has a Web site focused on brain fitness research, estimates that the US market for so-called neurosoftware last year reached US$225 million.
Fernandez said that compared with, say, the physical fitness industry, which brings in US$16 billion a year in health club memberships alone, the brain fitness software industry is still in its infancy. Yet it is growing at a 50 percent annual rate, he said, and he expects it to reach US$2 billion by 2015.
From Hula Hoops to Corian countertops, marketers have done very well over the six decades guessing the desires of the generation born after World War II. Now they are making money on that generation’s fears, and it is not just computerized flash card makers with the money-making ideas. Doctors and geneticists have also tapped into the market.
Boomers believe they have ample reason to worry. There is no definitive laboratory test to detect Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors rely on symptoms to make the diagnosis, and most think that by the time symptoms show up the brain damage is already extensive.
By 2050, 11 million to 16 million Americans will have the disease, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates.
“Most people when they turn 50 begin to look at forgetfulness with more seriousness,” said Gene Cohen, director of the Center for Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University.
“When you misplace your keys when you’re 25, you don’t pay any attention to it,” he said. “But when you do the identical thing at 50 or older, you raise an eyebrow.”
Lisa C., 47, a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay area, who preferred not to disclose her last name for fear that friends and colleagues would question her mental faculties, misplaced her cellphone one day a few years ago.
She called it from her home phone but heard nothing. Finally, while making dinner a few hours later, she found it — in the freezer.
She was so unnerved, not just by that but also by the poor results of a subsequent mental status test, that she had an MRI done on her brain. The diagnosis: perfectly normal.
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