At Lakeview Commons, an assisted-living center in Maplewood, 83-year-old Virginia Kemp is part of an experiment that she hopes will sharpen her mind.
"It isn't that complicated," says Kemp. "But I do think it does a lot of good for us seniors."
Kemp sits in front of a computer that's loaded with a program called [m]Power, which is short for mind power. It's sort of a computer game with a higher purpose -- to help seniors like Kemp maintain their mental acuity.
In one exercise, the computer shows Kemp a list of celebrities from her youth -- Lucille Ball, Don Knotts, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Buster Keaton, Harry Houdini and Johnny Carson. It also provides details about their hobbies and acquaintances.
It then removes the information and asks Kemp to select the person on the screen who knew Harry Houdini. It gives her four choices.
"I didn't hear him say anything about Harry Houdini," says Kemp.
She thinks for a moment and then guesses. Her answer is incorrect. But Kemp gets it right on her second try when she picks Buster Keaton.
“They're helping people reawaken what already might exist within them. They're not necessarily offering strategic instruction in how to get better.”Researcher Michael Marsiske
Officials at Lakeview Common's agreed to test [m]Power for six months to see if it would help residents. Kathy Bakkenist is chief operating officer and senior vice president of strategy and operations for Ecumen, Lakeview's parent company and Minnesota's largest nonprofit senior housing company.
"The whole point of being engaged with something like this is to continually stimulate your thinking and challenging your thinking, so that your brain is working at optimal capacity," says Bakkenist.
Lakeview staff asked for 24 volunteers to try out the computer program. Housing Director Wendy Traffie says they got 69.
"I think this generation knows exactly what they're up against with the possibilities of dementia. And they're on the forefront of wanting any kind of information, research or any kind of tools that will help them from having that happen," says Traffie.
That's what inspired Virginia Kemp at Lakeview Commons to volunteer for the program.
"You know -- you go into a room to get something, and you get in there and, 'Uh, what did I come in here for?'" says Kemp. "That's what I worry about."
Kemp has only been testing [m]Power for a little over a month. And so far she says she's not sure if she has noticed any difference in her memory. But says she enjoys the daily quizzes, especially the math.
During her latest computer session, Kemp answered all 21 math problems correctly in a minute and a half. Because she did so well, the computer program will give her more difficult problems to solve the next time she signs on.
Researcher Michael Marsiske from the University of Florida says that's one sign of a good cognitive test.
"It sounds like it's adaptive, which means that it's tailored in difficulty to the level of performance of the participant. And as the participant grows the level of challenge ramps up," says Marsiske. "From what we know about cognitive training in general, that seems to be exactly the right approach."
Marsiske recently co-authored a study on cognitive training in the Journal of the American Medical Association. He and his colleagues found that seniors who took part in intensive cognitive training, performed significantly better on memory, reasoning and speed tests five years after their initial training, compared to seniors who didn't receive the training.
But Marsiske says his study used a variety of methods to stimulate seniors' brains, from small group sessions to classroom instruction and feedback. He says he's not sure that programs like [m]Power could get the same results.
"The concern that I would have about some of these training programs that exist now is that they're really involving practice," says Marsiske. "So they're helping people reawaken what already might exist within them. But they're not necessarily offering training. They're not necessarily offering strategic instruction in how to get better."
Marsiske says it's also not clear with any cognitive therapy if improved performance on tests translates into improved performance in everyday tasks, like making dinner or balancing a checkbook.