Can you really train your brain?

Mental exercises and language classes may help stave off dementia, but caveat emptor

There has been a lot of talk lately about how learning a second language may help you avoid dementia and keep your brain healthy.

But, as the French would say, that’s just the commencement. In fact, language programs are only one part of the new billion-dollar “brain-training” industry.

Why is there suddenly so much interest in mental exercise? Well, in the next 35 years, the World Health Organization estimates about 115 million people worldwide will develop dementia.1 Couple that with the fact that some research shows “brain training” may help stave off age-related cognitive impairment, and it’s no surprise that a growing number of people are going back to school decades after they last donned a cap and gown.2

Brain training consists of tests, games, and classes designed to improve memory, concentration, processing speed, visual learning, problem solving, and language skills. Online programs or more formal brick-and-mortar “brain schools” offer mental exercises ranging from math problems to puzzles to computer games to reflex tests. Companies promise that these supposedly scientifically designed tests will boost mental function in everyone from preschoolers to octogenarians.

Of course, there’s plenty of controversy associated with this or any other “get smart quick” philosophy. And some new research shows that not all brain-training programs are effective at preserving brain function and preventing dementia.

Don’t try this at home

A recent analysis of 52 clinical trials involving about 4,900 healthy people age 60 or older showed that computerized brain training programs carried out in a proper education center really can improve cognition in older adults.4 But there are some important exceptions.

First of all, the researchers found that “brain-boosting” products promoted for solitary use at home are gimmicks and just don’t work.

The researchers also discovered that while one to three brain-training sessions per week were effective, any more than that actually appeared to neutralize the benefits.

As with physical exercise, there is such a thing as “overkill” in mental exercise. And at a certain point, the law of diminishing returns sets in. Your body and brain need at least one day of rest between exercises for optimum effectiveness.

The study analyzed computer cognitive training (CCT), which consists of standardized mental tasks or games on personal computers, mobile devices, or gaming consoles at home or in a group setting.

Overall, the researchers found that CCT had small but significant effects on study participants’ cognition. There were also small to moderate effects on memory, mental processing speed, and visual-spatial skills.

There was no improvement in attention levels or executive function (making plans, keeping track of time, multitasking, analyzing ideas, etc.). Which does not surprise me. Computers are a useful technology for accessing information, doing work, and being productive, but they may not be the best solution for your overall mental health.

If you feel like spending your days talking to and playing games with a computer is a little too reminiscent of the spooky HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s good news. A variety of studies show there’s a simpler way to stay sharp as you age.

Boost your brain with everyday tasks

Research indicates that simply using your brain in everyday tasks is highly effective at keeping you mentally fit.

This is the same sort of principle I believe works best in terms of physical exercise. Instead of getting in your car, driving to a gym, and hopping on an exercise machine, do something really healthy, productive, and useful instead. Use your body for yard work, housework, walking to your destination, and all the other tasks of daily living.

The same is true with your brain. Instead of always forcing your mind to interact with electronic machines, give it a workout with unplugged, everyday tasks.

Do the arithmetic in your head when you’re shopping or at a restaurant, instead of using a calculator. Use a map and compass instead of a GPS device to navigate to your destination. Make and keep a list in your head instead of entering it on your handheld device.

And by all means, consider learning another language and incorporating it into your everyday life.

Bilingual is better

You don’t necessarily have to have regular conversations in another language to reap the benefits of being bilingual. Don’t forget—people who are bilingual can not only speak two languages, but they can also think in two languages. And this mental versatility has been shown to have lifelong benefits.

In fact, researchers have found that if bilinguals do get dementia, it develops four to five years later than it does in those who speak only one language.4

Of course, there has been some speculation regarding whether learning a second language later in life has the same benefits. But a large new Scottish study may answer this question once and for all.5

The researchers found that it doesn’t appear to make a difference whether you learn a second language as a child or an adult. Being able to speak more than one language at any point in your life may slow down cognitive decline as you age.

The study began in 1947, when researchers gave 853 Scottish 11-year-olds an intelligence test. Between 2008 and 2010, when the participants were in their 70s, they were given another intelligence test.

By the time of the second test, 262 people had learned a second language in addition to English. Most (197) had learned that language before they turned 18. But only 90 people were still actively using their second language in 2008.

Even controlling for early childhood intelligence scores, the people who had learned a second language scored higher on reading, verbal fluency, and general intelligence compared to those who only knew English. And this finding also held true for the 65 people who learned their second language as adults. (Of course, my medical textbook publishers have offices in London and Edinburgh, and many of the Londoners believe the Scottish are already speaking a second language—and vice versa!)

Furthermore, among the smaller number of people who learned third, fourth, and fifth languages, brain health appeared to grow stronger with the more languages acquired.

Uno, dos, tres times as smart?

So why does your brain appear to function better when you speak more than one language? Noted language researcher Dr. Fergus Craik of the University of Toronto believes “both mental and physical activity throughout life are protective, and learning language is a very good form of brain training.”

However, it’s important to note that learning a second language doesn’t improve all mental functions. It mainly affects intelligence and executive functioning. Because while you’re communicating in one language, you have to manage and control the other (just picture Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 film of the same name).

So despite the “one-worlders,” when it comes to different languages, I say tutti quanti (Italian) should broaden our weltanschauung (German) and vive la difference (French).


1World Health Organization. Dementia. Accessed December 16, 2014.

2Law LF, et al. “Effects of functional tasks exercise on older adults with cognitive impairment at risk of Alzheimer’s disease: a randomised controlled trial.” Age Ageing 2014; 4 (6): 813-820.

3Lampit A, et al. “Computerized Cognitive Training in Cognitively Healthy Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Effect Modifiers.” PLOS Medicine, epub ahead of print 11/18/14.

4Craik FIM, et al. “Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve,” Neurology 2010; 75(19): 1,726–1,729.

5 Bak TH, et al. “Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?” Annals of Neurology 2014; 75(6): 959-963.