Do “brain games” prevent dementia?

I like playing the brain games of Lumosity online and on my phone.

I like puzzles and words games in general, and Lumosity offers a fun and convenient way to play and keep track of my improvement in a variety of challenges.

I’ve never paid the costly $15 a month subscription, because I’ve never bought into the idea that playing these “brain games”—Lumosity calls it “brain training”—by themselves is enough to prevent dementia as I age.

But many people, apparently, were influenced by Lumosity’s advertising.

Two weeks ago, the creators of Lumosity settled a $50 million lawsuit with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

“Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”

The FTC alleges that the defendants claimed training with Lumosity would 1) improve performance on everyday tasks, in school, at work, and in athletics; 2) delay age-related cognitive decline and protect against mild cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease; and 3) reduce cognitive impairment associated with health conditions, including stroke, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, ADHD, the side effects of chemotherapy, and Turner syndrome, and that scientific studies proved these benefits.

Which begs the question do these kinds of brain games, or crossword puzzles or sudoku, help our brains at all?

Certainly we’ve been told to “use it or lose it.” Advertising claims aside, what does the science actually reveal?

Luckily, the blog Science-Based Medicine (SBM) posted about this topic last week, as well.

The idea behind “brain training” is not a bad one, it’s just easy to misrepresent as something it isn’t. The basic notion is that using your brain makes it function better. It is better to be mentally and physically active than inactive.

The very term “brain training,” in my opinion, is inherently deceptive. It implies that something more than just learning or practice is going on. This is the crux of the FTC decision against Lumosity – they claimed that their games were scientifically designed to train your brain and thereby confer some generalizable cognitive benefits. They were, however, getting ahead of the research, and their claims happened to land on the wrong side of reality.

According to SBM, research shows that playing a game makes you better at that game or similar games, but doesn’t necessarily make you smarter overall.

For example, doing a lot of crossword puzzles will increase your vocabulary and you’ll learn crossword puzzle solving strategies. Your Scrabble or Words With Friends skills will probably improve, too.

Doing a lot of timed mental math will make you faster at sums. Playing a lot of memory games will improve some basic memory skills.

As with dietary advice, all of the complex research can currently be boiled down to rather simple advice – be mentally active, try new things and engage in different types of mental activity. Also get regular physical exercise. Such simple advice does not sell many self-help books or subscriptions to brain-training services.

So just as a single nutrient alone is not enough to keep us healthy, brain games alone are not enough to prevent dementia. Our brains need to keep active, yes, but diet, exercise and socializing are of equal importance.

The current consensus based upon existing research is that engaging in cognitive tasks is overall a good thing. Stay mentally active and engaged, and try to engage in a variety of activities and in novel activities.

However, the evidence so far does not support the claim that specific skills learned in one task are transferable to other tasks (with the possible exception of visual processing and perhaps task switching), or are generalizable to overall cognitive function, memory, focus, or mental quickness.

There is also no evidence that games “scientifically designed” for “brain training” are any better than regular games.

The bottom line is that you will improve at whatever task you practice, and perhaps closely related tasks.

There is no evidence to support spending any amount of money on specific products. Do what interests you, challenges you, and engages you. Don’t believe the “brain training” hype.

I like Lumosity’s games and will continue to play them, along with lots of other (free) games.

Related post: The healing power of mahjongg?

Brain games of all kinds—mahjongg, bridge, poker, Scrabble, anagrams, video games, crossword puzzles, chess, sudoku, Candy Crush, whatever—are part of a well-balanced lifestyle.

Variety is important. Don’t spend a lot of money on any one product or activity.

Related post: Don’t buy supplements to prevent Alzheimer’s

Sláinte,

Frugal Nurse

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