I fear I may be hurtling into the brain-fog years. In a single weekend, I forget the name of a woman I see regularly at our children's parties, misplace an important financial document, and have trouble identifying a favorite shrub that's burst into bloom along my walking route. "Look at that...oh...um...er...bushy thing...you know...the rhododendron!" I say to my walking buddy. "You're good," Carol answers. "I wouldn't have gotten rhododendron. I'd have just called it a rhubarb."
Blame stress. Crazy-busy multitasking. Lack of sleep. But that's not the whole story. In interviews with a half-dozen researchers, I learn that every passing birthday brings age-related brain changes that play a growing role in slowed information processing, memory lapses, and all-around fuzzier thinking.
"The decline you're noticing is real and it starts before age 30," says Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a professor in the Keck Center for Integrative Neurosciences at the University of California at San Francisco. "A 60-year-old brain takes in information two to three times slower than a 20-year-old brain. As a result, what's stored in memory is two to three times less clear and detailed. And by age 80, you may be five to eight times slower. That's a big difference!"
The good news? Old brains can learn new tricks. "We used to think that with age, brain cells shriveled up, died, and that was that," says Paul Laurienti, M.D., Ph.D., a brain researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. "Now we know that even older brains can grow new, stronger connections."
In a 2007 study that scanned the brains of 23 elderly people, Dr. Laurienti found that those who'd gone through a brain-training program were better able to focus a plus because aging brains become more distractible. Growing evidence suggests that a lifetime spent using your noodle in your day job as an astrophysicist or mom, or after hours playing Monopoly, tooting the clarinet in your local chamber group, or doing crossword puzzles may build extra brain connections (a kind of mental savings account called cognitive reserve) and slow the symptoms of dementia.
Banking on this research, dozens of brain-training books, computer games, and Websites have hit the market all promising to make your brain friskier and maybe even ward off big mental threats like Alzheimer's. Do these programs work? The jury's still out, though company-sponsored studies suggest they may.
There are two key requirements: You must do the exercises consistently. And they shouldn't be too easy. "Brain training is analogous to physical workouts," says brain researcher Sherry L. Willis, Ph.D., a professor in the department of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University. "You have to cross train work different parts of your brain and keep adding new challenges."
In an unscientific experiment, I test-drove five top-selling brain boosters to see which ones I could stick with for the months or years the researchers say are necessary to preserve and improve brainpower. My criteria: Was there science to back a product's claims? Was the program challenging enough to hold my interest? Fun enough to make me want to play it again and again? Here's what I found.