Brain games enlisted to combat mental aging

If regular physical exercise can keep our bodies fit, can brain training games do the same for our brains? Can specially designed games, playable on a computer or smartphone, give us the brain equivalent of a well-toned body?

As with many questions, it depends on who you ask.

Challenging your brain supports brain function and it can be done in several ways, said Connie Snider of the Alzheimer Society of Saskatchewan.

So-called brain games were first targeted to the narrow market of parents of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder syndrome.

The launch of Brain Age in 2005 marked the inauguration of what would be a lucrative additional market: people concerned about the changes that ageing might precipitate in their brains; people who worried about the onset of dementia. In short, most of us.

In 2005, consumers in the United States spent about US$2 million on brain games. In 2007, that figure jumped to about $80 million. By 2013, “brain training” was a $1.3 billion industry.

At the same time, many people wondered if brain-training and brain games made a difference.

In 2008, a group of neuroscientists published a letter warning the public about the lack of independent research on the effectiveness of brain games.

In 2010, a U.S. government body, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, found insufficient evidence to recommend any method of preventing age-related memory deficits or Alzheimer’s disease.

More warnings from more scientists followed. A counter statement was organized by the chief scientific officer of Posit, one of the brain game companies.

In 2015, an investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission found that Lumosity’s marketing “preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease without providing any scientific evidence to back its claims.”

“Basically, we think the most that they have shown is that with enough practice you get better on these games, or on similar cognitive tasks,” said Michel Rusk, spokesperson with the FTC in Washington, D.C., in an article by Emily Underwood in the Jan. 5, 2016, post of Science.

“There’s no evidence that training transfers to any real world setting.”

The company was ordered to stop making claims without reliable scientific evidence, defined as randomized controlled trials done by competent scientists, and to pay a $2 million settlement to customers.

Lumosity was also ordered to provide an easy way for customers to cancel auto renewal billing and provide a pop-up, on-screen alert notifying customers of FTC’s order. Other brain training companies were also penalized.

Meanwhile in Britain, the Alzheimer’s Society funded research at King’s College, London, to test brain training games’ link to cognitive function in older people.

That study found that playing the games, which challenge people on reasoning and problem solving, can help people older than 60 to get on better with their daily activities over a six-month month period.

The researchers also saw improvements in reasoning and verbal learning skills in those older than 50. In their assessment, there were benefits to be derived from brain training and those benefits transferred to daily life.

Back in Saskatchewan, more than 19,000 people are living with some form of dementia. Snider said brain training can be part of an overall strategy to lower an individual’s risk or improve quality of life, but she emphasized there’s no need to buy brain games. Similar benefits can be realized in other ways.

“We certainly don’t endorse any specific program, but we’re not going to say you shouldn’t,” she said. “It’s not necessary to pay a registration fee in order to do something that’s going to challenge your brain.”

Challenging your brain supports brain function and it can be done in several ways, she says.

“For example, if you’re doing sudoku puzzles and you’ve mastered the level you’re at, move onto more difficult puzzles. Variety is the best thing for your brain ever.”

If you brush your hair with your right hand all the time, use your left hand so the opposite side of your brain is firing. If you’re driving to work every day and you take the same route, change your route so your brain has to work a little.

If you’re not challenging your brain, you’re not using your brain to its capacity. So, pursue new interests. Learn another language, play a musical instrument, take a course and visit museums, she said.

“Some of the research talks about cognitive reserves. There’s lots of evidence showing that the brains of people who challenge themselves in different ways might be able to tolerate the changes that even come with aging and Alzheimer’s. That’s building cognitive reserves.”

Other healthy brain strategies include being socially active, choosing a healthy lifestyle, watching weight, diet, blood pressure and cholesterol levels and protecting your head.

And when it comes to news of so-called cures for dementia/Alzheimer’s, Snider said people should look for replicated evidence-based research.

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