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The Brain-Game Hype Takes Off

category_bug_journal2.gif The hype surrounding brain games is already boring and it hasn’t gained anywhere near the screech level it will reach in the coming year.

It started in the U.S. last year with Japanese import, Brain Age, a video game that requires the purchase of a special player to use the word and number exercises, and has expanded to internet subscription sites like happy-neuron.com and mybraintrainer.com. It has invaded assisted living communities, is being offered by health insurers and touted by AARP.

“This is going to be one of the hottest topics in the next five years – it’s going to be huge,” said Nancy Ceridwyn, co-director of special projects for the American Society on Aging. “The challenge we have is it’s going to be a lot like the anti-aging industry; how much science is there behind this?”
- The New York Times, 27 December 2006

So far, not much although all the brain-training program manufacturers like to say that their games are “scientifically” developed, and they claim using their products for weeks or months will, among other things, strengthen memory and concentration. But there is little data to prove that.

“While there is encouraging animal research, experts say human studies have generally relied on observations of people with healthier brains, but have not been tested whether a particular behavior improves brain health. Perhaps people with healthier brains are more likely to do brain-stimulating activities, not the reverse.

“’Right now,’ said Dr. Marilyn Albert, director of cognitive neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University…’we don’t know that if you do certain kinds of puzzles it’s going to have a benefit.’”

- The New York Times, 27 December 2006

What is better known to the scientific community is that cardiovascular exercise helps the brain:

“What’s good for your heart’s probably good for your head,” said Dr. Lynda Anderson, chief of health care and aging studies at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…

“Similarly, Dr. Albert said that heart-healthy foods were probably brain-healthy foods.”

- The New York Times, 27 December 2006

Unlike herbal supplements, some of which are untested and others that are outright fakes, there is certainly no harm in doing a few puzzles and mental exercises. But I'm skeptical. There is a slight whiff of snake oil about the sudden, unquestioning acceptance of brain games by traditional healthcare organizations, particularly insurers, that leaves me wondering how soon we will all be required to prove we’ve successfully passed a test based on them to be eligible for health coverage.

Until researchers can show me otherwise, I suspect that a healthy, active mind requires much more varied and complex use than puzzles and memory games can provide. If you enjoy them, that’s well and good, but they are limited in being only one kind of mental stimulation for a short period of time each day.

Better, I think, is an abiding interest and curiosity in people and the world around you; finding a passion and delving into it; listening - really listening, not just passively hearing – music; blogging, too, which studies show improve both critical and analytical thinking.

A mixture of all that should keep any mind active, but be sure to save some time to take a brisk walk. Your brain needs all the blood it can get.

Comments

I think you've nailed it, Ronni: Bloodflow and an interest in life.

Oh, good! I loathe numbers puzzles. I can do crosswords till forever, but those sudoku, or whatever they're called are not my cup of tea!

I get my brain exercise memorizing lines. I hope it helps!

I do believe in practice resulting in improvement, that an active mind is more alert, and that some of these games may be fun and provide some social interaction.

Are they going to engage people who have not previously enjoyed such things?

I have always found reading stimulating: sometimes just entertaining, but often making me stretch those mental muscles. Memorization is a great mental exercise (and often useful).

"Perhaps people with healthier brains are more likely to do brain-stimulating activities, not the reverse." I suspect that the statement form the The New York Times article has a lot of truth in it. Interest may decline as ability to solve/enjoy declines.

Anyway, an interesting post, and I want to look further at the research.

As I begin to experience memory slips (like by the time you get to the kitchen you forgot why you were going there, ha, ha!), I am grateful for a couple of things in my life that I believe keep my brain honed somewhat: speaking another language, as I have done for umpteen years now. I am convinced that being bilingual, on a daily basis, has kept at least certain critical thinking parts of my brain a bit sharper. The other thing is going to graduate school. That has opened up many avenues of study and contact with people and things that I wouldn't have otherwise had.

I agree with you that there is no magic puzzle that is going to cure memory problems or brain functioning. Keeping an open mind, however, is imperative. Good post.

There is a huge body of research on this topic but it is cross disciplinary and scientists and physicians in different fields (neurology, neuroscience, psychology, nutrition, geriatrics, etc.) often don't talk to each other. Several large, longitudinal studies come to mind: Einstein College of Medicine's 21-year-long Bronx Aging Study, for example, which showed that people who particpated in challenging, interactive games or ballroom dancing four times a week had a 65-75% less probability of Alzheimer's or dementia compared to those who did not participate. Reading came in at 35% and crosswords barely trended positively (because they are really quite one-dimensional but fun for many and therefore perhaps a good stress management tool). Other large, longitudinal studies such as the Chicago Aging Study (Rush) have also shown the powerful effects of the combination of good nutrition (specifically green leafy vegetables and fish), physical exercise, and mental stimulation. The ACTIVE study(led by researchers at six respected institutions and involving hundreds of people) has shown that training on specific cognitive skills, such as reasoning and memory, can have short-term and long-term (5 years) effects and generalize to everyday activities, such as managing money and problem-solving, skills that help us remain independent.

Our bodies, especially as we age, need aerobic exercise, muscle toning, and stretching and strengthening. Why is it difficult to believe that our brains operate the same way? That is, we need to seek new knowledge and we need to practice our cognitive process skills to enable us to take in and use that knowledge.

Would learning Chinese or playing the cello as a new endeavor be great for your mind? Yes. I think we all believe that. Brain games, developed by scientists and targeting specific skills (memory, concentration, reasoning, etc.) can be one convenient, rewarding component of an overall brain fitness program, just as weights and stretching are for physical workouts.

Scientists have already shown repeatedly that our brains can continue to develop new connections and pathways at any age. We need to take advantage of that powerful news in every way we can to build our "cognitive reserve," another concept which is now broadly accepted by scientists.

I always enjoy your viewpoints but on this one, I must respectfully disagree.

Brain exercises :

1. "Times" crossword puzzle. Get the answers the day after and then try to work out how they fit the clues.

2. Yukon three decks.

Makes grey cells grow on grey cells.

Games may or may not do the job -- but you don't need to buy special equipment to do that. It is like the "lapware" being sold to the parents of toddlers, totally unnecessary. Play with toddlers, talk and sing and read and touch. As adults, there are crosswords and jigsaw puzzles and even, free games on the internet that will do as good a job as any thing you pay lots of money for.

Ronni, not only are you very erudite, but you are also very logical in your analytical abillity. I love doing crossword puzzles but I know they will never help me with math problems. Sometimes common sense should prevail. I agree with you 100%

Oh I do so agree with 'Septuagent'. One of the things I loathe most about our consumer society is the fact that as soon as somebody invents something or discovers something that is (or may be) of use to others they immediately turn it into a way to make money. If you want to do things that give your brain a workout there are a zillion ways to do them that don't involve signing up for a subscription. And by the way, you can try out quite a few of the games on the happy-neuron site without signing up. I did so, to see what they were like. I discovered that lots of them - specially the 'memory' ones - were exactly the same as the ones I play with my grandchildren.

You got it spot on, Ronni! It's just another scam to make us feel old. I love puzzles, etc. -- there are lots of them free online! I also love to read, write & do research all of these things keep my brain working. Frankly, I don't want the brain of a 25-year-old -- my 25-year-old brain did a lot of really stupid stuff. My almost 60-year-old brain has infinitely more sense. This "brain age" thing smacks greatly of ageism in my not so humble opinion.

I agree that this is just another dopey scam to separate consumers from their money. Playing & studying Contract Bridge & chess, blogging & reading the NY Times & Wall Street Journal provide me with more than enough intellectual stimulation.

And cardiovascular exercise IS of paramount importance for brain AND heart health!

I believe some of these cognitive games as Sheryle wrote: "can be one...component" for mental exercise. However, I agree with Ronni, "an abiding interest and curiosity in people and the world around you; finding a passion and delving into it; listening - really listening..." and some physical exercise are the major components which will be the most beneficial as we age.

I think great care should be taken in advertising and promoting these cognitive skill games. Clear statements as to how the individual will benefit and the limitations to engaging in these games need to be stated, since the consumer often has great difficulty interpreting the research data much less determining the reliability and validity of the research in the first place.

Ronni,

You bring up an excellent point—balancing care for mind and body for overall well-being. I think it’s wise to be skeptical as the marketers of a new product have one main goal—marketing the product! While I agree that having and expressing a healthy curiosity for the world around you is a positive step for maintaining your mental capacities, I do see the benefit in mentally challenging games, especially for detecting cognitive impairments. I recently wrote a blog on this same topic in which I touched on this idea. Here’s an excerpt from the post:

“Professors at the Oregon Health and Sciences University conducted a small study in July of 2006 to see if mild cognitive impairments could be detected by monitoring players using a solitaire-like computer game called FreeCell. They first conducted mental tests to identify which older adults had memory impairments, and were pleased to find that the FreeCell results identified the same subjects as the mental tests. The researchers are employed by Spry Learning Co., a developer of software designed to help delay and even prevent cognitive decline. The program incorporates games that adapt to each player’s skill level, keeping users engaged.”

If you’d like to read the rest of the post, visit:
http://www.gilbertguide.com/blog/2007/01/30/detecting-and-improving-your-brain-age/

Thank you for posting this provocative blog—
Lori
www.GilbertGuide.com

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