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The Takeaway: Nintendo Game Promotes Brain Health; Should Medicare Cover Gym Fees?

Brain Gamers Show Cognitive Gains: The box for Nintendo's Brain Age claims the game can 'keep your brain young and sharp' in just 'minutes a day!'  Skeptical? Yeah, me too. But a new study from Japan's Tohoku University shows it's more than just marketing hype: Playing Brain Age really can improve ' cognitive fitness' in older men and women.

The study was small: 32 participants. Researchers tested their cognitive function and then randomly assigned them to play either Brain Age or the classic game Tetris for 15 minutes per day, at least five days per week. After four weeks, the researchers administered a second round of cognitive tests. And relative to the Tetris group, those who played Brain Age showed improved 'processing speed' and 'executive function" (a term researchers use to encompass cognitive skills such as mental flexibility, sensitivity to interference, conceptualization and 'inhibitory control').

Brain Age-which includes word scrambles, virtual piano and arithmetic questions, among other activities-was developed based on research on cognitive decline in older adults. Time's Laura Blue notes:

Calculating and reading skills were specifically included to improve activation of the prefrontal cortex, which is critical for learning and memory. ... the scientists say the report's most revealing conclusion may not really be about video-gaming at all. Instead, what's more important is the possibility that cognitive function can improve in a relatively short period of time with something as simple as a portable video game player.

Brain gamers showed no improvement in what researchers call 'global cognitive status,' which includes "orientation for place and time, memory and attention, language skills, and visuospatial abilities." The researchers didn't measure memory performance.

Fit Seniors Choose Health Plans With Gym Coverage: Covering gym-membership costs attracts healthier adults to insurance plans, according to a new study. Brown University researchers analyzed 22 Medicare Advantage plans, half of which covered fitness club memberships and half of which didn't. The plans that did attracted healthier participants: 6 percent more seniors who reported being in excellent or very good health, and 10 percent less new enrollees with physical limitations.

Insurance companies are at risk for paying for all covered services, so there's a strong financial incentive to enroll people who are healthy rather than those who are sick," said study co-author Dr. Amal Trivedi, an assistant professor of health services, policy and practice at Brown.

The number of Medicare Advantage plans offering gym coverage is on the rise. Between 2002 and 2008, plans covering gym memberships went from 14 to 58.

Thursday Quick Hits: 

  • U.S. life expectancy rose in 2010, as fewer people died from heart disease, cancer or homicide. In fact, pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs, replaced homicide as the 15th biggest cause of death in 2010. Alzheimer's disease retained its place as the 6th leading cause.

Photo: Getty Images

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