Brain Training: Science weighs in Back »

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Memory loss is the most feared part of aging. The most common question I hear is, “How can I prevent dementia?” Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to prevent dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. The science of the brain is still in its infancy so what do we know at this point in time?

The mantra to remember is, “If it’s good for the heart, it’s good for the brain”. What does that mean? A well balanced diet, physical activity, and healthy habits (not smoking and limitations on alcohol consumption) are the only known actions a person can take to delay the onset or prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, remaining cognitively active and socially connected are also know to prevent or delay the onset of disease and disability. It is important to note that the cause of these diseases is not well understood so a person may still develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease even after engaging in activities known to prevent or delay the onset of disease or disability.

Brain training has become a very hot topic in recent decades. If you have been on social media, listened to the radio, or watched TV, you have heard the commercial and the claims to offer memory training to exercise memory, attention, problem solving, and much more. These services indicate their training is backed by research. Crossword puzzles and Sudoku have also been offered as options to train the brain.

At the end of 2014, the Stanford Center on Longevity issued a statement on the subject of brain training signed by over 70 scientists from around the world. The statement indicates that to-date science cannot support brain training to prevent or reverse dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Below is a summary of their statement:

  • “We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. ... We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field (Source: A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community).

As a gerontologist, I have long been skeptical of the ability of brain training to either prevent or reverse cognitive decline. I encourage you to consider this. Our species has existed for millions of years and widespread literacy has only emerged in the past 500 years. Even in this era of widespread literacy, areas of the worlds have literacy rates below fifty percent.

The “brain training” we engaged in for most of our history did not involve us solving problems on paper or a computer screen. If we needed to do something, we tried it. For example, if we needed to a push a boulder up a hill, we gave it a try. If we found it kept rolling back down on us, we would add a log or another rock to keep it from rolling down the hill. We might sketch a drawing so we could visualize what we wanted to try, but the problem solving we engaged in was practical and applied.

So what’s the take away here? Continue to be cognitively active, socially connected, and engage in a healthy lifestyles to prevent debilitating illness and early cognitive decline. To be cognitively active means to learn a new skill. For example, start a new hobby such as photography. To be socially connected means to be involved in activities that keep you connected with other people. For example, offer to serve meals at a soup kitchen or serve as the Board of Directors of an organization you support. Engaging in a healthy lifestyle means to eat a balanced diet, stay physically active, avoid smoking, and only consume alcohol in moderation.

Please keep in mind that we are not telling you to not play brain training games. If you enjoy them, continue to play them. We just want to ensure that accurate information on the subject of brain training is being delivered to the public.

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