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Can you improve brain health? Scientists weigh in

As baby boomers age, dementia and Alzheimer's could create significant financial and social burdens in the years to come. As a result, scientists are researching ways to mitigate or even prevent these dreaded conditions, and corporations are smelling a business opportunity.

In recent years, companies have developed a number of online cognitive training programs -- brain games -- to help improve memory and brain processing speed. They've been promoted as a fun way to help people stay mentally sharp as they get older, building on the widespread popularity of video games. In a sign of what some see as the commercial potential, Investors also hope to develop the world's first prescription video game.

So is playing fun video games really the answer to the threat of Alzheimer's?

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Many scientists think not. According to the Stanford Center on Longevity (SCL) and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development, there's no reliable scientific evidence to support the notion that cognitive training can improve overall brain performance (disclosure:The author is a research scholar at SCL).

Indeed, 70 of the world's leading neuroscientists and cognitive scientists took the unusual step of signing a statement that directly challenges the claims made for brain games:

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. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field."

These scientists acknowledge that by continuing to play one of these brain games, people can improve their scores on the particular game they're playing. But there's no evidence that improving your gaming skills will help you remember where you left your car keys or the names of friends and relatives.

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A recent article in Scientific American, written by a prominent psychologist, digs deeper into the research regarding cognitive training and provides evidence confirming the position taken by SCL and the Planck Institute. The author describes research he conducted that attempts to replicate the findings of the papers that ostensibly support the use of brain games as a means to improve cognitive health -- he was unable to duplicate these results.

Replication of experimental results is a key step in the process to build scientific consensus.

Both the Scientific American article and the statement issued by SCL and the Planck Institute identify methods currently known by science to help maintain brain health:

  • Enhance your physical health through diet and exercise. After all, your brain is flesh and blood, so what's good for your body is also good for your brain. In particular, there's evidence that aerobic exercise can result in modest improvements in cognitive functioning.
  • Maintain an active social life, with stimulating conversations and activities with a variety of people.
  • Continue to learn new skills and stay engaged with life.

Other tips to help with brain health include getting sufficient sleep, not smoking, and not abusing drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, for now there's no known cure for either Alzheimer's or dementia. The best you can do is adopt a lifestyle that improves your odds of maintaining a healthy mind as long as possible. Also, you'll want a strategy to address the financial consequences of needing long-term care in your later years, since Alzheimer's and dementia are common reasons for needing such care.

Both SCL and the Planck Institute confirm that people can continue to learn new tasks and improve performance well into old age. The key is to focus your time and money on activities that are important and have meaning for you. If you really like playing video games, crossword puzzles, or Sudoku, and you want to get better at these activities, then by all means keep at it. Just don't expect that your overall intelligence and memory will improve.

On the other hand, if it's important that you improve your driving skills, taking a driving course is a good use of your time and money. If your idea of fun is to learn a new language, play a musical instrument or learn ballroom dancing, then taking lessons or even online courses is another good use of your time and money.

To put it another way, these scientists are saying it's probably a waste of your time and money to think of brain games or other such activities as medicine, or as a vaccination against Alzheimer's or dementia. Instead, aging boomers should take a cue from their youth: Do what turns you on. Get better at skills and activities that have meaning for you. Even if you don't get smarter, you'll be enjoying your life.

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