We’ve all felt it: that moment of panic when we reach into our pocket or purse for the house keys, and discover that they aren’t there. As we frantically retrace our steps, opening drawers, riffling through yesterday’s clothes, a sinister little tape keeps looping through our heads. Am I losing my mind? Is this the beginning of dementia? How long do I have before I can’t look after myself anymore? Cognitive decline is what many of us seniors fear the most. What can we do about it? Enter the brain games industry, catering to those fears to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But do brain games work?
Because of the public interest, and the relentless hype, scientists have turned their attention to this question. To find out what the biomedical research has to say, I ran some Medline searches. I looked for studies that had gathered together all the research on the topic, and had focused on the most rigorous studies, analyzed and where possible combined the results. It made for a frustrating read. Many studies had been poorly designed. Most looked at short-term outcomes comparing pre-test and post-test scores. And they differed widely as to what aspects of cognitive performance they were measuring: everything from attention, to various types of memory, to reaction time. With all these methodological issues, the results are not surprising. The most comprehensive recent study found that while there is evidence that brain games do improve performance on the trained tasks, there is little evidence that the training transfers to everyday life. Additional studies looked at whether other factors, such as exercise, diet, and social interaction, could influence brain function. These results were discouraging too. For example, researchers could not find evidence of any cognitive effect from aerobic exercise, although of course it’s still worth doing to improve cardiorespiratory fitness.
So how do we keep our aging brains sharp? Well, there’s a model already out there for young people: school. In school, kids develop their minds not just by sitting in front of a computer and focusing on single tasks, but through rich, deep, challenging learning experiences, working independently and in groups. Maybe it’s that deep learning that we need to do, making concentrated sustained efforts that take us out of our comfort zone. It’s the exact opposite of what we think we want in retirement, an easy day, just relax, put your feet up and enjoy yourself, you’ve earned it after a lifetime of work. Maybe that easy day is what sets us on the path to cognitive decline.
So learn to play bridge, take tap-dancing lessons, study Italian, take up the trombone. Smarten up.