If the latest news about “brain games” and dementia makes your head spin, that’s understandable. Claims and refutations have made this field an intellectual roller coaster.
Not long ago, ads implying that online games designed to sharpen cognitive skills can help prevent dementia flooded the Internet, radio and TV. Then the Federal Trade Commission ruled that these claims were essentially bogus.
Now a new study claims that a certain kind of brain game is, in fact, associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s. It’s been touted as a significant finding in The New Yorker, and Time ran an article with the headline “The Best Way to Delay Dementia Without Drugs.”
A little investigation, however, made us skeptical. Is it really time to invest your time—and money—in these programs to protect yourself from dementia?
TEASING OUT AN ALZHEIMER’S LINK
To get to the bottom of this mystery, we turned to Cynthia R. Green, PhD, founder of the brain-health consulting service Total Brain Health in Montclair, New Jersey, founding director of the Memory Enhancement Program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and frequent Bottom Line contributor. We weren’t surprised to learn that she’s already looked closely at the matter.
The new research, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, provided a new analysis of data from University of South Florida, Indiana University and The Pennsylvania State University based on an ongoing study called “Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly” (ACTIVE). That study looked at men and women over age 65 who showed no evidence of dementia when they enrolled.
One kind of brain game stood out, researchers found. Over the course of 10 years, the men and women who had training in something called “speed of processing” were about one-third less likely to develop cognitive impairment or dementia compared with those who didn’t have this kind of training. Since there was no actual measurement of dementia in the study, researchers used a statistical analysis to indirectly pick up evidence of dementia.
Here’s what speed-of-processing games train you to do: Process visual information faster. For example, you may be asked to click on an icon of a bird in a flock that looks different from the other birds—and then do so faster and faster while the background gets more and more complicated. The goal is to speed up your brain’s ability to process information.
A one-third reduction in dementia risk is an exciting finding, right? Yes…but it’s too soon to conclude that think-fast brain games are proven dementia protectors, says Dr. Green. As she explains in her blog post, “Think Fast! Should Processing Speed Challenges Be Part of Your Brain Health Plan?,” the study hasn’t been subject to peer review in a medical journal yet and wasn’t even designed to study dementia—the goal of the study was to determine whether cognitive interventions (e.g. “brain games”) can help adults keep their cognitive skills as they age. That’s actually a different thing from identifying who is going to get Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. According to an article published in MedPage Today, “Watch Out for Brain Training Claims” (free subscription required), there may also be a conflict-of-interest issue because a close colleague of one of the study authors has had financial links to the company, Posit Science, that developed the speed-of-processing test that was studied.
Even so, Dr. Green is decidedly enthusiastic about training our brains to think and act faster. She believes that learning new ways to speed up the brain’s processing ability is an important tool in your brain-training toolbox. Why? Because there is growing evidence that this kind of practice can help you stay sharper as you age—it’s a core skill that enables many other mental abilities, including memory and learning. “The rate at which we ‘think through’ information is critical to everyday intellectual performance,” she writes. Games and activities that teach you to process information against the clock, she writes, “may help us maintain our processing speed as we grow older.” Honing visual speed-of-processing skills is also key to being able to drive safely as you get older, which helps you stay independent longer.
Those are all good things—even if they don’t prevent dementia.
HOW TO THINK FASTER
Dr. Green has several suggestions to enhance your ability to think faster…
- Play games against the clock. They can be board games, electronic games—anything that you time. Now try to do it faster!
- Play online games with friends, such as Word Streak with Friends (free, available for both iOS and Google Play), which challenges everyone playing to make as many words as possible with a set amount of letters before the time runs out.
- Do anything faster. Whether it’s prepping vegetables for dinner, folding the laundry or doing new dance steps—try timing yourself and see how you can improve your time.
Dr. Green has nothing against “Double Decision,” the speed-of-processing game developed by Posit Science’s program that is available along with other games by subscribing to BrainHQ, which is a version of the computer program used in the ACTIVE study. You may decide that it’s worth $96 a year.
But there are many ways to learn how to think faster every day, for free—and doing so is only part of an overall lifestyle that’s good for brain health. To learn more, see Bottom Line’s article, “Best Workouts to Keep Your Brain ‘Buff’.”
A healthy diet matters, too, especially these 10 foods that nourish your brain.