Oct 22, 2014

Do Brain Games Really Help Prevent Dementia?

The explosion of individuals with dementia brain draining disorders like Alzheimer’s, has created an over abundance of resources targeted at improving one’s mind.

By Elaine C Pereira
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Do Brain Games Really Help Prevent Dementia

The implied proposition of course, is that challenging your brain through visual, spatial and related problem-solving exercises will stall or maybe even arrest dementia.

But do they?

Like far too many people, I know first hand the ravages of Alzheimer’s. My mother died of the disease in 2011 and she often referred to her “Aunt Elizabeth” has having succumb to “senility, but probably Alzheimer’s”. I never met my great aunt Elizabeth but clearly AD “runs in the family.”

Given my gene pool is probably tainted with documented cases of Alzheimer’s, I’m out to explore every reasonable approach to fighting back! So I thought I’d check a few out “brain games.”

My experiences are just that, my personal experience with no research validity. But as an Occupational Therapist with a strong neurological background, I’m qualified to at least render a professional opinion.

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Enter Brain Games!

Literally in less than a second, .08 in fact, Google’s search engines revealed hundreds of brain game sites. Three include:
  1. Games for the Brain: “Play never ending quiz, memory & brain games to train your thinking.
  2. Luminosity: “Challenge your brain with games designed by neuroscientists to exercise memory and attention.”
  3. And AARP “Have fun working your memory, problem-solving and language skills.”
Collectively all of the sites offer a variety of visual spatial, visual motor exercises and memory recall. It’s the fine motor mouse or track pad control that intrigued me as many very lucid people are “all thumbs” when it comes to keyboard control. I question that some of the exercise train the memory part of the brain or rather speed and dexterity.

Coincidentally while I was playing free brain games on AARP’s site, up popped this article from October 20, 2014:

Scientific Evidence Does Not Support the Brain Game Claims, Stanford Scholars Say
“While it is true that the human mind is malleable throughout a lifetime, improvement on a single task – like playing computer-based brain games – does not imply a general, all-around and deeper improvement in cognition beyond performing better on just a particular game.” http://stanford.io/1pAsrit 
So Now What?

Honestly, I’m disappointed as like virtually everyone else I’m searching for the dementia equivalent of the Leprechaun’s pot of gold at the of the rainbow. But in my efforts to “Just Say No to Alzheimer’s”, some of the brain game activities are humbly cool and fun to try.

Exploring the free Brain Game sites costs you nothing except some time and probably some “humble pie” as you falter, out witted by some multi-faceted, figure ground, puzzle thing!

In my professional opinion, though, research is ever changing. Even though the Stanford scholars concluded that Brain Games do not generate “a general, all-around and deeper improvement in cognition”, there is still so much do not know about the specifics of Alzheimer’s and its effects on the brain.

Research has a long, long way to go.

I Will Never Forget

Elaine C Pereira, is the Award Winning author of the Best Selling memoir, I will Never Forget: A Daughter's Story of Her Mother's Arduous and Humorous Journey Through Dementia.

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Scientific evidence does not support the brain game claims, Stanford scholars say
Sixty-nine scientists at Stanford University and other institutions issued a statement that the scientific track record does not support the claims that so-called "brain games" actually help older adults boost their mental powers.

By Clifton B. Parker

The Stanford Center for Longevity joined today with the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in issuing a statement skeptical about the effectiveness of so-called "brain game" products. Signing the document were 69 scholars, including six from Stanford and cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists from around the world.

Laura Carstensen, a Stanford psychology professor and the director of the Center for Longevity, said as baby boomers enter their golden years, commercial companies are all too often promising quick fixes for cognition problems through products that are unlikely to produce broad improvements in everyday functioning.

"It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products," she said. "But in the case of brain games, companies also assert that the products are based on solid scientific evidence developed by cognitive scientists and neuroscientists. So we felt compelled to issue a statement directly to the public."

One problem is that while brain games may target very specific cognitive abilities, there is very little evidence that improvements transfer to more complex skills that really matter, like thinking, problem solving and planning, according to the scholars.

While it is true that the human mind is malleable throughout a lifetime, improvement on a single task – like playing computer-based brain games – does not imply a general, all-around and deeper improvement in cognition beyond performing better on just a particular game.

"Often, the cited research is only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell," said Carstensen, the Fairleigh S. Dickinson, Jr. Professor in Public Policy.

Agreeing with this view were the experts who signed the Stanford-Planck consensus statement, which reads in part:

"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."

Activity and cognition

As the researchers point out, the time spent on computer games takes away from other activities like reading, socializing, gardening and exercising that may benefit cognitive functions.

"When researchers follow people across their lives, they find that those who live cognitively active, socially connected lives and maintain healthy lifestyles are less likely to suffer debilitating illness and early cognitive decline," as the statement describes it.

"In psychology," the scientists note, "it is good scientific practice to combine information provided by many tasks to generate an overall index representing a given ability."

The same standards should be applied to the brain game industry, the experts maintain. But this has not been the case, they add.

"To date, there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life," the participants state.

One reason is the so-called "file drawer effect," which refers to the practice of researchers filing away studies with negative outcomes. For example, brain game studies proclaiming even modest positive results are more likely to be published, cited and publicized than ones that do not produce those affirming results.

The road ahead

In the statement, Carstensen and her fellow scientists offer recommendations for how people should view older adult life and issues like brain games:

  • Legitimate research on brain games needs to be replicated and confirmed scientifically across multiple studies in different settings.
  • Physical exercise is beneficial to both general and cognitive health.
  • No studies have shown that brain games prevent diseases like Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.
  • Brain games are not like "one shot" vaccines – the gains won't last long after the end of the activity.
  • People can cultivate their cognitive powers by leading physically active, intellectually challenging and socially engaged lives.
The Stanford Center on Longevity's mission is to redesign long life. The center studies the nature and development of the human life span, looking for innovative ways to use science and technology to solve the problems of people over 50 by improving the wellbeing of people of all ages.