Katherine Boehret

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Games to Flex Your Brain

For anyone fearing mental decline as they age, two new products offer to help keep minds nimble.

This week, I’ve been testing Dakim BrainFitness (dakim.com) and Lumosity by Lumos Labs Inc. (lumosity.com). Dakim BrainFitness costs $250 and installs on Windows PCs and Macs from a DVD; a free trial can be downloaded onto Windows PCs at dakim.com/freetrial.

Since I’m not in the age-60-and-over category targeted by Dakim BrainFitness, I asked a friend in his early 60s to also try the home software program.

Lumosity is a Web-based series of brain exercises that is geared toward a wider audience and compares your progress with other users. Its tiered billing plans include a $15-a-month option and a $300 lifetime membership.

My friend and I found Dakim BrainFitness’s clearly explained approach inviting and entertaining. BrainFitness comes with enough 20-minute sessions to last for over 300 hours and includes puzzles, memory challenges, trivia, music, computation and images. The sessions are geared toward exercising six cognitive areas: short- and long-term memory; language; computation; visuospatial orientation; and critical thinking.

Dakim touts on its home page that it is advised by scientists, including the director of the UCLA Center on Aging. It also cites a UCLA study funded by Dakim showing that people who used BrainFitness experienced significant improvements in memory retention and delayed recall.

The narrator of each session uses hokey phrases like “mighty fine,” and sessions reference actors and celebrities who have long since died. My friend said it reminded him of an episode of “The Lawrence Welk Show” and that it would drive most baby boomers nuts.

Dan Michel, CEO of Dakim and a boomer himself, said BrainFitness was originally designed for his father—who was in his 80s at the time and struggling with Alzheimer’s—which explains the older-generation pop culture references. Mr. Michel says Dakim is expanding the time frame for these references and aims to include a cross section of material from several generations. The software receives new content in every session, while a user plays, and is installed when the program is closed.

BrainFitness took both of us between 30 and 40 minutes—an eternity in the tech world—to install from a DVD onto two Windows desktop PCs. Attempts to install it on a relatively new MacBook and a Lenovo laptop also failed. A company spokesman said I may have had a faulty Mac DVD. He couldn’t explain what went wrong with the Windows laptop installation.

BrainFitness’s five levels include one for those who have no cognitive decline; two levels for age-related decline; and two levels for mild-to-moderate cognitive impairment or dementia. The program starts every user at level 2, and then adjusts to your performance as you play.

These adjustments—including fewer instructional videos per session and noticeably harder activities—were enough for me to notice. One example was a puzzle with missing pieces. In my first session, it showed me a finished photo of the puzzle, but in my third session, it didn’t display the photo before telling me to select the missing piece.

Lumosity aims to improve users’ memory, attention and speed by enhancing cognitive skills. Three basic-training sessions are free to try. The company’s site also notes its scientific advisory board on its site.

I liked two things about Lumosity that I didn’t find in BrainFitness. First, it sent me questions according to things I told it during a set-up process, like if I was using it to improve test-taking skills. This differs from BrainFitness, which sets users into a level and adjusts their session content in the background. Second, each exercise includes a sidebar of details about what skill is being exercised in a session, what that skill is used for and an example of those skills at work.

In a session called Birdwatching, I learned I was exercising my visual field, that this skill could be used in peripheral vision, sports and driving safely. An example of this was a person who wants to get home quickly in busy traffic. The game involved watching for letters and birds to flash on the screen at the same time. I got points for remembering where the bird appeared; remembering the letters helped me eventually spell out the name of a bird.

Still, BrainFitness felt more comfortable and personalized than Lumosity, especially thanks to its narrated sessions. These made me feel like someone else was guiding me through each session and this narration could be a motivator of sorts.

Though Dakim BrainFitness is expensive and can be a challenge to install, the software is simple to use for people who don’t spend all day on the computer. If I set up BrainFitness for my grandparents, who are in their 80s, I know they would be at ease with its easy-to-navigate menus and style.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katherine.boehret@wsj.com

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