With the Medicare enrollment period now closed, federal data show that memory fitness – what some call “brain training” – is the fastest growing Medicare Advantage fitness benefit.
Memory exercises are now offered by more than 25 percent of plans that offer fitness benefits, frequently tied to gym memberships.
While the perk may seem brand new to some – Medicare only approved memory training’s inclusion in plans in 2019 – it marks a fairly long and torturous road for Henry Mahncke, a neuroscientist who for decades has been studying how to improve cognitive function.
“Years ago, nobody really thought that you could rewire the adult brain to improve cognitive function,” he said in a recent interview. “There was generally a viewpoint that once your brain matured in your teens and 20s, it just kind of wore out.”
Dr. Mahncke founded Posit Science, a San Francisco-based research firm that produces BrainHQ, which has become the preeminent online brain fitness program for Medicare Advantage organizations in the U.S.
It was only two years ago that the Centers for Medicare & Medicare Services required insurance plans to differentiate among physical fitness, wearable fitness trackers, and memory fitness programs.
The change was a boon for Posit Science and Mahncke, who, for more than a decade, had worked with government healthcare regulators to convince them of the efficacy of brain training. Posit Science signed up its first Medicare Advantage organization in 2019 and by next year will have more than 18 on its roster.
“It created a great opportunity for the business and growth,” he said. “But equally important is the growing understanding that taking care of your brain is a part of healthcare, and being a benefit, in the same way that a physical fitness benefit is out there, like a meal benefit, or gym benefit.
“It just changes the conversation for everyone, whether it's members, whether it's doctors, whether it's regulators, or other thought leaders. It is now part of the conversation that we should be taking care of our brains as we get older.”
"...If you provide the right kind of training exercises, you can change the brain structurally, functionally and chemically.”Dr. Henry Mahncke, founder of Posit Science
Posit Science distinguishes itself from other brain training programs and products because it is among the few that has peer-reviewed studies and research showing BrainIQ can produce significant gains in standard scientific measures of cognition: attention, processing speed, memory, and decision making.
Recently the Federal Trade Commission sued a handful of cognitive training companies accusing them of over promising the benefits of their programs and products. Posit Science was not among them.
We didn't come at this like psychologists, we came at this like brain scientists,” Mahncke said. “And it was more and more clear over the ‘90s that the adult brain can rewire itself. And if you provide the right kind of training exercises, you can change the brain structurally, functionally and chemically.”
Brain training programs like BrainIQ has quickly become a popular offering for both Medicare Advantage companies and consumers.
Memory fitness 'best of both worlds'
“Memory fitness is kind of the best of both worlds where it directly addresses older Americans greatest fear, which is cognitive decline, while also being a benefit that is heavily marketable,” said Vincent Giglierano, senior manager of health services research at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, the Minneapolis-based law, consulting and lobbying firm, which counts Posit Science among its clients. “It really does allow plans with the benefit to differentiate against their competitors.
Giglierano said he believes the COVID-19 pandemic actually spurred growth of the mind fitness programs.
“I'm assuming that a lot of people who were stuck at home during COVID found that it's something to do,” he said. “And going through memory training programs are essentially little games that you can play on your computer.”
While perhaps entertaining, Giglierano said the BrainIQ programs are backed by science.
“They have studies everywhere on how brain fitness impacts congestive heart failure, and diabetes, and stroke, and all of these other issues that are outside cognitive decline,” he said.
BrainHQ offers dozens of computerized exercises driven by algorithms to monitor progress and suggest a personalized brain exercise regimen for each user. It is now offered, without charge, as a benefit by leading national and 5-star Medicare Advantage plans and by hundreds of clinics, libraries, and communities.
Doug Bailey is a journalist and freelance writer who lives outside of Boston. He can be reached at [email protected].