Eighty-seven-year old Dorothy Dagen sat beaming in her very first graduation cap and gown.

A car accident had sidelined her from her high school graduation about 70 years ago. But now Dagen and 10 other residents of Christian Care Centers Inc. in Mesquite, Texas, were being honored with a balloon-festooned graduation party in the dining area of her retirement home as graduates of the Brain Fitness Club of April 2009.

"It's very meaningful," says Dagen, who credits the eight-week Posit Science program for improving the quality of her life by teaching her to listen and to recall subtle variations of sounds and small details of stories. "The story part was hard because I wasn't paying that much attention to what was said at first. I do better now. And I made friends."

Fellow graduate Grace Clayton, 88, is also a fan. Legally blind and in a wheelchair, Clayton says she moved the computer screen close to her eyes so she could follow the program. Another bonus: She had never used a computer, but now she enjoys playing solitaire and other computer games.

"I'm learning," she says with a smile. And she's already convinced her friend, Mary Evelyn Harrison, 85, to sign up for a session.

"I'm waiting for a spot," Harrison says.

The San Francisco-based Posit Science (www.positscience.com), founded by neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich, introduced its program to its first retirement community in 2005, as part of a new emphasis for seniors on mental-fitness programs that are often referred to as "brain gyms."

It's not the only brain program available to retirement communities. C.C. Young uses Dakim Brain Fitness System (www.dakim.com), from a Santa Monica, Calif.-based company that spent years developing a program it launched in 2006. Dakim offers 20-minute sessions on a touch-screen machine with exercises designed to enhance long-term memory, critical thinking, calculation, language and other mental abilities. They began selling a home edition in April.

But while the details of the programs vary, the principle is the same: The brain can be taught even as people age. The idea is that while hearing and listening skills deteriorate naturally with age, their loss is exacerbated by lack of use.

As Posit Science puts it in its program materials: "As people get older, they often become like concert violinists who have stopped practicing. Resting on their laurels, they still play a pretty good fiddle, but a practiced ear could hear that their skills are gradually fading."

Both the Posit Science and Dakim systems adjust to different ability levels. The students don't compete against each other, but they do compete against themselves, working to raise their scores in such areas as memory, language and critical thinking.

At Christian Care Centers, the setup is simple: a room with computers. The program is housed in its wellness center, down the hall from the gym and swimming pool. Software was added to a newly installed computer in its nursing care facility so that Dorothy Hoke, 83, could join the class, even though she needs a higher level of physical care than the other seven independent retirement-living residents and two assisted-living residents who graduated with her.

Debbie Wheelan, director of retirement living at the Mesquite facility, says she has been thrilled with the program's impact. This is her second graduation class since the retirement home introduced Posit Science in November. Christian Care Centers is planning to expand it to their other two campuses in Fort Worth and Gunter, Texas, and is working out details to offer it to the larger community.

"The fact that I see these faces alert and alive when I walk around the campus is wonderful," Wheelan says.


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DR. COOPER'S TIPS FOR STAYING YOUNG

One of Dr. Kenneth Cooper's favorite sayings is, "Fitness is a journey, not a destination." Here are his recommendations:

ALL AGES

  • 30 minutes of cumulative activity most days a week