By RASHA MADKOUR
Associated Press Writer
SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) _ Seniors in this retirement hotspot diligently packed the local Y, sweating to keep their bodies in shape. But after their workout, several couldn’t remember where they put their car keys.
Watching this scenario unfold, neurotherapist George Rozelle thought: Wouldn’t it be great to have a health club where people could keep their brains fit? And so it was born: the Neurobics Club.
The center uses computer programs and other gadgets that stimulate the brain to help those who feel they aren’t as sharp as they used to be, or, as Rozelle puts it, people who are understressing their brains. Some doctors are skeptical about such programs’ benefit and cost, but Rozelle isn’t deterred.
“The fun part of this field is that it’s growing rapidly. There’s a lot of interest now in healthy aging,” Rozelle says. “The baby boomers are getting older and they’re not liking it.”
Dr. David Loewenstein, a University of Miami brain disorders researcher, said there’s much interest in any therapies that could help keep aging brains quick. With 78 million baby boomers beginning to hit their 60s, “there’s a big market for these sort of things.”
“What do older adults have? There really isn’t any medicine right now that prevents Alzheimer’s disease … so anything that can help people with their cognition can be of tremendous interest,” he said.
Still, experts caution there isn’t a lot of proven science behind much of this stuff yet.
The U.S. market for home computer software aimed at brain fitness grew to $225 million in revenues in 2007, according to a SharpBrains report, up from an estimated $100 million in 2005. The research and advisory firm forecasts the market burgeoning to $2 billion by 2015.
Rozelle’s “spa” uses a variety of tools, from high-tech reclining chairs that simultaneously stimulate several senses to a dark, quiet flotation tank that shuts out any stimulation. These mimic the stress-relaxation routines familiar to athletes. Along the wall in one room are computer stations with programs that call on a host of cognitive skills, like memory, computation, decision-making and critical thinking. In another room, a chair reclines to a zero-gravity position, thought to evenly distribute a person’s blood pressure and take stress off the spine.
The Neurobics Club is housed at Rozelle’s clinical practice, the Mind Spa. After an initial consultation to develop a tailored training plan, clients can buy a $50 monthly membership and have unlimited use of the equipment. Since it opened in 2007, about 50 people have joined.
Among them is Genie Hindall, 66, who joined after her husband starting having problems with his short-term memory and executive functions. Hindall wanted to take some preventive steps with her own mental acuity, saying: “I feel like I’m having to do a lot of thinking for two people now.”
About once a week, the former educator makes the 55-mile roundtrip from her Englewood home to downtown Sarasota, where the Mind Spa is in a single-level brick office building along with a neurologist’s clinic and endoscopy center.
Hindall sits in front of a computer for 45 minutes, doing exercises like trying to remember sequences of numbers seven long. She then lies down on the neurowave chair for half an hour. She dons goggles that emit flashes of colored lights and headphones that play soothing music, as the chair rotates in figure eights, rocking her into a meditative state.
“There’s a calmness and everything seems to go out of my mind,” Hindall says. “I just look at that as my quiet time.”
Medical authorities say consumers should be aware that many brain-fitness activities cannot promise specific results.
“For a lot of these things, there’s not a broad-based demonstration that they’ll work, there’s a more general: ‘Exercise is good,'” says Dr. Carl Eisdorfer, a geriatric psychiatrist who heads the University of Miami’s Center on Aging. Research into cognitive rehabilitation is just beginning, Eisdorfer adds.
“I think we’re at the point now where we have to be cautious about how we approach it and not oversell the idea,” he said.
Rozelle agrees that more research into mental fitness needs to be done, but says there’s enough evidence out there now to support what he’s doing with the Neurobics Club.
“It’s well accepted that to establish brain plasticity and brain fitness, it’s important to stimulate the brain in many and novel ways, because the brain gets lazy, but it responds to new stimulation.”
Loewenstein goes back to the gym analogy in assessing the benefit of a place like the Neurobics Club, saying: “Could it be helpful for some people? Absolutely, because some people could never exercise their brains,” just as others won’t do any activity unless they’re at a fitness club.
“But on the other hand, are you getting something here that you couldn’t get on your own and not pay money?”
On the Net:
Mind Spa, www.mind-spas.com
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.