Can brain training keep us sharper in old age?
The big question is: do such puzzles or “brain training” games work? The evidence is unnecessarily confusing. Along with many other tips, Dementia UK points out that “participating in hobbies, learning a new language, knitting, doing puzzles and listening to music… will stimulate different areas of the brain and help with attention and concentration”.
But Alzheimer’s UK reports a mixed picture. “Some studies have shown that cognitive training can improve some aspects of memory and thinking, especially for middle-aged or older people,” he notes. But “so far, no study has shown that brain training prevents dementia.”
Indeed, he cautions: “People should be careful if they find commercial packages that claim they can prevent or delay cognitive decline, as the evidence is currently lacking. Recently, a leading provider of commercial brain training games was fined for making false claims about the benefits of its product.
This may be a reference to the American company Lumosity, the origin of the computer application “brain training” Lumos Labs, which in 2016 paid a fine of 2 million dollars imposed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on the grounds that it “misled consumers with unsubstantiated claims”. that Lumosity games can help users perform better at work and school and reduce or delay age-associated cognitive impairment.”
Then, the FTC’s consumer protection director, Jessica Rich, went so far as to say that “Lumosity relied on consumer fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting that their games could ward off the memory loss, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease, but Lumosity simply didn’t have the science to back up its ads.
If the claims were too bold, the rewards on offer may explain why. The brain training market is expected to grow from $3.2 billion in 2020 to $11.4 billion by 2025 and $20 billion by 2028.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean we should all throw away our crosswords and sudokus, or even delete our brain-training apps.
A recent analysis of 215 clinical trials supported by the U.S. National Institute on Aging (NIA) showed that “various cognitive training tools…can help healthy older adults or those with mild cognitive impairment improve their health. cognitive and perhaps their daily functioning”. Critically, he found that although the benefits were “modest in size,” they affected both healthy people “and those with mild cognitive impairment. This may mean that certain forms of cognitive training can help reduce or delay the development of cognitive impairment and dementia.”
Indeed, the NIA is currently funding a major brain-entrainment software trial, which will end in 2026, with the goal of pinning down the evidence once and for all. Meanwhile, here in Britain, a large study called Protect, conducted in partnership with the NHS, is following thousands of people to find out, as lead researcher Professor Clive Ballard puts it: “what combination of [lifestyle] factors really work” to prevent or delay dementia.