At first, the changes are subtle: it gets a little harder to tune out distractions or keep up with the rapid-fire chatter of young children. Then, maybe names start to slip away, or it becomes difficult to hold a phone number in mind when making a call. These changes, starting in the late 40s and early 50s, are a normal part of aging.
Enter online “brain-training” games claiming to help strengthen mental muscles and prevent this cognitive drop-off. By whizzing around virtual racetracks, counting the proportions of baking ingredients, and recalling patterns, the makers of these games say users can actually improve memory, reasoning, and problem-solving skills.
“People are aware that cognitive skills decline with aging and are eager to find things that might help stave off this natural process,” says Priti Shah, a professor of cognitive neuroscience and educational psychology at the University of Michigan. The big question is whether playing a memory game will help older adults in their everyday lives. Will it help someone stay focused during conversations, or help them remember whether they took their pills that day?
Unfortunately, scientists haven’t found conclusive evidence that brain-training works. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined two companies, Lumosity and LearningRx, in 2016 for misleading customers to believe that their games could reduce or delay the mental deficits that come with getting older.
Historically, people have used several games — from Sudoku to crosswords — to try to boost their cognitive abilities. Even Mark Twain wasn’t impervious to their appeal. He created his own Memory Builder trivia game while writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The digital brain game industry has only grown exponentially since then. It earned more than $1 billion in 2012 and is estimated to reach $6 billion by 2020, according to a report by the market research firm SharpBrains.
The problem is that while the tasks in many brain-training games are based on actual neuropsychological tests, these tasks rarely translate to broader, real-world outcomes. A 2016 review of more than 300 scientific studies found that brain-training helped people improve their performance on the specific trained tasks, but the skills learned did not have “far transfer” effects to other unrelated tasks such as overall improvements in memory or processing speed.
Another major study published in 2017, pitted Lumosity brain-training against regular video games. Researchers asked 128 healthy young adults to play either Lumosity’s games or a commercial video game five times a week for 10 weeks. At the end of the training, participants in both groups showed similar improvements in standardized cognitive measures — but so did a separate control group that didn’t play any games at all. It could be that all participants improved simply because they practiced the cognitive tests, Shah says. Regardless, the results of the study suggested Lumosity couldn’t improve real-world cognitive abilities.
That doesn’t mean brain-training lacks potential entirely. “Just because one program doesn’t help with something doesn’t mean that a different type of cognitive activity or intellectually stimulating experience won’t improve outcomes for a different group of people,” says Benjamin Katz, a cognitive neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, who previously worked as a game designer. Indeed, a few small studies have suggested that brain-training games may offer limited advantages to people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2016 report from The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study revealed that training to boost processing speed reduced older adults’ odds of developing dementia 10 years later. Participants who underwent the training, which involved identifying images that flashed briefly on a computer screen, cut their risk for developing dementia by 29 percent. Adults who received other types of brain training, such as training to boost memory or improve reasoning skills, experienced a much smaller reduction in dementia risk.
“There’s no silver bullet,” Katz says. People who want to preserve their cognitive abilities should try incorporating a number of things into their routine. “If you’re running a marathon or training for a big athletic event, you don’t just run, you do cross-training, you look at your diet, your sleep schedule, things like that,” he says.
Scientists have started looking at how a multidimensional approach may better support brain health, Katz says. There’s already some evidence suggesting physical exercise helps maintain mental skills, as does improving sleep quality, reducing stress, and spending time doing social activities like playing cards with friends, knitting, or dancing. “A lot of this is still just correlational in nature,” he says. “But it does provide ideas for things we can explore in the future that might improve cognition.”
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