The world is getting a whole lot smarter.

Or at least it should be, based on the passionate interest in solving puzzles and sales of brainpower-boosting electronic and computer games in the past few years.

Electronic and computer games have gone from sales of $70 million nationwide in 2003 to an estimated $225 million in 2007, according to those who monitor brain health.

These activities provide the equivalent of a brain workout.

"The more you use your brain, the better it's going to function," says Alvaro Fernandez, chief executive and co-founder of SharpBrains.com, a website that tracks the business and science of improving brain health. "Two years ago, no one understood brain training, and that the brain continues to form new connections when stimulated in the right ways."

Just as exercising your body improves your physical form, solving crosswords, Sudoku, logic puzzles and computer mental fitness games improves your mind and increases your brain cells.

Although puzzle solving has been popular for years, the technology of improving the brain with online puzzle websites and computer brain-enhancement programs has gained an edge. Fernandez notes, though, that programs such as Nintendo's Brain Age are not scientifically based.

For those serious about strengthening brainpower, he recommends MindFit (rated No. 1 by the Wall Street Journal and winner of the 2007 ASA Best Product Award) and Posit Science, an auditory-based program. Both were designed based on scientific studies of the adaptability of the adult brain.

Electronic technology has not diminished the appeal of the printed puzzle.

"Printed puzzles are portable, and you don't need a computer screen or an Internet connection to solve them," says Mark Lagasse, senior executive editor at Dell Magazines, a leading publisher of puzzle magazines.

"We find that people still get such a feeling of accomplishment -- when they put that last letter in a box, or finish that last word -- they really feel good about being able to do that. Even though it's the computer age, we're still going strong."

Retirees Bob and Martha Lesinski, both 66, of Grand Rapids, Mich., not only enjoy solving puzzles for fun, but they find the process mentally stimulating.

"The more challenging, the better," says Bob, a former religion teacher at Grand Rapids Catholic Central High School.

Sitting at the dining room table with scads of New York Times crossword puzzle books and maybe a computer printout of an online Sudoku grid, the couple start each day working on puzzles -- averaging two or three daily.

"There's never been one we haven't solved," Bob says.

Martha admits that once in a while she turns to the Internet for help with an answer. "I'm more for looking up and learning," the former music teacher says.

Lasting effects

Studies are starting to show brain-training exercises have lasting effects, especially for the elderly.

"What computer-based programs can do that, say, solving word puzzles can't, is that such programs can assess where a person is at the time, then target mental exercises at a higher level of difficulty to stimulate that portion of the brain," Fernandez says.

Technology is helpful in tailoring a personalized brain improvement program and delivering the right exercise, Fernandez says. When used with a sports pack game attachment, Nintendo's Wii console allows people to work the mind and body.

"We can actually grow more neurons by stimulating the brain," says Susan Owens, executive director of the Michigan Brain Gym Consortium, an organized collective of licensed Brain Gym instructors and consultants focused on brain fitness.

"At any age, anytime, we know we can make significant improvements."