Mainstream medicine has nothing to offer men and women who want to prevent or reverse dementia. So it’s no wonder people turn to brain training games in an attempt to forestall the devastation of this disease. I have reported before about the proliferation of these brain training games on the internet. It’s a rapidly growing, $2 billion annual industry.
But there isn’t much evidence that playing brain games by yourself does any good. On the other hand, going to a community center and participating in a group program may offer some benefits. In my view, engaging in any kind of group activity — which involves social interaction — offers some benefits, regardless of how flawed or insubstantial the program itself may be. It’s simply the social interaction itself that helps support healthy cognitive function as you get older.
Of course, the creators of brain training programs make many people believe their cognitive training will prevent or delay dementia. They often cite the theory of neuroplasticity, described as the brain’s ability to form new connections to enhance or maintain cognitive function.
Yes — neuroplasticity is useful in rehabilitation from stroke and some other sudden onset brain diseases. But it’s not relevant in the chronic, degenerative brain diseases most commonly causing dementia.
You see, cognitive function is complex. It involves auditory and visual attention, executive function, manual control tasks, memory, processing speed, reaction time, reasoning, and spatial ability. And the pattern of cognitive dementia always shows declines in multiple areas of these brain functions.
So even if there is a way to prevent decline in one area, it’s unlikely to preserve or improve daily function because other areas of the brain are also compromised.
For example, just slowing memory loss (if possible) would still not delay dementia. Driving a car, for example, would still be impaired due to losses in other cognitive functions such as executive function, reaction time, and spatial relations. The same applies to cooking, working around the house, or using the internet. These activities require attention, motor skills, and processing abilities, in addition to adequate memory.
Study results don’t live up to the marketing hype
Researchers have studied cognitive training in both younger and older people, and in those with and without normal cognitive function, or dementia. Studies show it can lead to some improvements in targeted areas of cognitive function limited to the specific function for which the training was offered. For example, “memory training” may improve performance on the same kinds of memory tests in the future. But it doesn’t affect processing speed.
One excellent study directly demonstrated that cognitive training doesn’t reduce dementia rates. The ACTIVE trial assigned 2,802 older adults to one of three cognitive training groups on memory, processing speed, or reasoning. The fourth group — a control group — received no cognitive training. After five years, the researchers found no significant difference in dementia rates between the cognitive training groups and the control group.
This large study began in 2002 and appeared in publication 10 years later. But it’s only been cited in scientific literature five times in the three years since publication.
No wonder the public hears far more about the bogus “benefits” of brain training — thanks to some aggressive marketing — than they do about this solid, factual, scientific study which barely made it into print.
Thankfully, leading experts in the neurosciences strongly oppose these efforts to mislead the public. In fact, two experts described the fallacy of these approaches in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society. They say there’s no reasonable “mechanism of action” nor any scientific evidence that such approaches could work.
Plus, in October 2014, the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin published a report called, “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry.” They concluded that “exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of adults facing old age for commercial purposes. Perhaps the most pernicious claims, devoid of any scientifically credible evidence, is that brain games prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s disease.”
An active daily life is the best brain booster
As I mentioned earlier, cognitive training concentrates on just a single cognitive function — without cross-over to other abilities. Furthermore, the modest amount of time actually spent on cognitive training per week is insignificant compared to actual daily activities involved in working, playing, studying, reading, and thinking. So — even if these computer games could work to delay dementia, it’s highly unlikely that a few hours, or even a few hundred hours, could help build cognitive capacity to any adequate degree.
It makes a lot more sense to sustain cognitive ability by continuing to perform daily life tasks. Join a book club. Spend some time out in Nature. Most of all, stay active and engaged every day in the world around you.
Plus, research shows that over a dozen natural approaches can halt and even reverse dementia in 90 percent of cases. I wrote more about these approaches in the February issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter. (If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started so you don’t miss this very important issue.) Also, look for my groundbreaking dementia prevention and reversal protocol that I will be releasing in the coming months.
1. Ratner, E and Atkinson, D, J Am Geriatr Soc 2015: 63(12): 2612-2614