If you want to keep your brain sharp as you age, are you better off playing computer-based memory games or making grocery lists?
The answer may be a little of both.
You can subscribe to any number of online mind-training programs that promise to boost intelligence, stave off memory loss, delay cognitive decline and possibly help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
There’s the Aging Well Program from Scientific Brain Training PRO designed to help older people with mild cognitive impairment. Happy Neuron promises “brain fitness for life” and Lumosity offers personalized “memory training.”
But if you buy into any of these programs, you might be wasting your money. According to David Z. Hambrick, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, “There just isn’t enough convincing, scientific evidence to support claims that brain-training programs have far-reaching benefits on cognitive functioning.”
He echoes the 2102 findings of a team of Swedish scientists: Brain gamers tend to get better at a particular game – but their overall cognitive abilities don’t improve.
The same could be said for doing crossword puzzles. “The skills you acquire have to be meaningful in real-life for brain training to be worth the time,” says Dr. Hambrick, who is among those researching the subject.
The recent surge in brain games capitalizes on a 2008 study that claimed that memory training for varying lengths of time enhanced “fluid” intelligence – and the more intense the training, the bigger the boost. Dr. Hambrick and colleagues recently tried to replicate the positive findings of that study – unsuccessfully.
But that doesn’t mean we should give up trying to improve our mental functioning. We can enhance our ability to function by using the skills we gain through real-life experience, Dr. Hambrick says – for example, by reading a newspaper.
That’s where the grocery lists come in.
Boosting Our Brain Power in Real Life
Published in January, the largest ever study of brain training in healthy seniors found that even short-term training using items that we deal with in everyday life aided reasoning ability and processing speed – resulting in improvements in daily living that lasted as long as a decade.
The ACTIVE study (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) involved almost 3,000 volunteers age 65 and older. Participants were randomly divided into three groups, one for training memory, another for reasoning and the third for speed of processing. Each group received 10 training sessions over five to six weeks. A control group received no training.
In addition to memorizing random words and looking for geometrical shapes, the participants also remembered items and looked for patterns in everyday items. For example, they might have remembered words from a grocery list: milk, bread, 3 oranges, 2 green apples, etc; or looked for patterns in bus schedules: Monday, Wednesday, Friday; 2:20, 3:40, 5:00. “People saw the meaningfulness of what they were learning,” explains George W. Rebok, PhD, a professor of mental health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, lead author of the study. The people in the speed of processing group were the only ones who used computer-aided training.
The gains were long-lasting. After five years, all three groups showed improvement in the specific skills trained – for example, remembering words and seeing patterns. After 10 years, only the reasoning and speed-of-processing groups continued to show improvement, with bigger gains for those who got up to eight extra “booster” training sessions over the next three years.
But more important, about 60 percent of the trained participants also reported less difficulty in their ability to perform daily tasks such as using medications, cooking and managing finances. After 10 years up to 70 percent of them were as well off or better than when they started.
“Almost everybody declines somewhat with age. But we were able to delay that decline even with a fairly brief intervention,” Dr. Rebok says.
The results were so significant that Medicare is considering reimbursing for “memory fitness activities” with the goal of delaying cognitive decline and dementia.
What You Can Do
“None of us in the baby boom generation can afford to be mental couch potatoes,” Dr. Rebok says. “We need to build challenges into our daily lives to exercise memory and thinking. Maybe you should not reach for the calculator. Maybe you take the grocery list with you to the supermarket, but also try to memorize as many items as you can. Read a newspaper – then talk about it to a friend. There are so many ways we can build more mental challenges.”
“We’ve also found that being physically active and socially engaged helps maintain brain function as we age. You don’t need a computer game for that.”
Besides putting away your calculator and losing the lists, try these online resources:
- BrainHQ, a version of the program used in the ACTIVE trial for speed of processing, is now available online from PositScience. You can use some of the program’s features for free; others require a subscription.
- Try similar brain exercises for free through AARP Brain Fitness
- Read more about that ACTIVE study
How do you boost your brain power in real life?