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Are brain games necessary for brain health?

Created date

August 21st, 2015
brain training graphic
brain training graphic

So-called “brain games” have become big business. Many companies claim their games and exercises can boost your intellect, improve memory, and even stave off dementia-related illnesses. But do they really work?

“There is little if any solid scientific evidence about whether playing brain games can in fact prevent cognitive decline,” says S. Marc Testa, Ph.D., from the Division of Neuropsychology at the Sandra and Malcolm Berman Brain and Spine Institute at LifeBridge Health in Baltimore, Md. “Most studies have been small and poorly designed.”

Thus far, research on seniors suggests that playing certain games helps people get better at those games, but there is no evidence that it helped improve functioning in other areas of life.

Science weighs in on cognitive fitness

Most geriatric experts concur that keeping your brain active is important to maintain cognitive fitness. “But the best way to go about it involves more than logging onto a website or downloading an app,” Testa says. “Regular exercise is one very important way to keep your brain healthy. Among other bodily benefits, it keeps the blood vessels that feed your brain healthier and thus more oxygen can be delivered to vital tissue.”

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends several additional strategies that may reduce your risk of cognitive decline: eating a proper diet, getting the right amount of sleep, taking care of mental health, and challenging your brain.

But just like there are different exercises for your body, there are different exercises for your brain. Researchers disagree about the best types. Some think that crossword puzzles, playing cards, or reading can cause beneficial changes in the brain’s anatomy or functioning. Others think that anything that requires you to store and retrieve information is best. Yet other scientists believe that the most effective activities involve learning something new, such as an instrument or foreign language. “The learning process helps to increase or strengthen the connections among nerve cells in your brain,” Testa says. “But whether or not that can delay or prevent cognitive decline is questionable.”

Doing something novel can contribute to your cognitive reserve, which refers to the sets of skills attained from your lifetime of education and experience. Scientists have found that two people with Alzheimer’s disease may have very different levels of functioning but then have the same postmortem pathological changes within the brain tissue. “Such findings might help explain why some people can cope with dementia better than others,” Testa says.

Although you may not be able to prevent a disease process, mental aerobics can help you deal with normal age-related memory problems. But taking a class in quantum physics is not necessary. “There is some scientific evidence that simply reading aloud may help to exercise your brain,” says Eugenio Machado, M.D., medical director at Rid..., an Erickson Living community in Silver Spring, Md. “By doing so, you are in fact using a lot of your brain’s circuitry.”

“I’ve read studies that show seniors who did simple activities such as writing in a diary, playing chess, or reading the paper increased their brain activity and they experienced fewer ‘senior moments,’” says Carolyn Dean, M.D., medical advisory board member for the Nutritional Magnesium Association. 

Surveys show that some people believe games or other activities help their brains be sharper. “I’ve seen some patients who have done some form of brain training and they seemed to think it was helpful,” Dean says. So if you feel as if playing brain games helps, Testa says they are certainly not likely to be harmful. 

Precautions

If you have noticed memory loss and are concerned, see your doctor. “Many factors can contribute to cognitive changes,” Machado says. “Your doctor should evaluate your overall health, medications, and anything else that may be affecting your cognition.”

Online brain training can be very expensive, and companies may cite spurious science to back their claims. Along similar lines, geriatricians warn about other products claiming to help memory. “No dietary supplements or herbal preparations have been proven to improve brain function, and many can negatively interact with other medication you are taking.” 

“There are so many free ways to give your brain a workout,” Testa says. “I wouldn’t waste money on something that wasn’t proven to work.”

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