Lumosity makes online brain games. It also made false advertising claims for years, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting its games could stave off memory loss, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease,” according to the FTC. “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.” In a settlement, the company agreed to nix the ads and refund $2 million to its one million paying subscribers.
Lumosity’s brain games are fun to play, with their addictive inducements to click to test your ability to, for example, match colors or words ever more quickly, and they do sharpen skills such as speed, attention and memory while you play them. But the evidence has been lacking that they lead to real-life changes in how your brain functions in the real world—especially changes that could lead to preventing cognitive decline.
“Perhaps what is most shameful,” writes clinical psychologist Cynthia R. Green, PhD, author of Your Best Brain Ever: A Complete Guide & Workout and frequent Bottom Line contributor, “is that the years touting online training as just the ‘quick fix’ that would keep our brains young has masked the real science of what brain fitness is all about, namely engaging in lifestyle behaviors that have been tied to staying sharp.”
She doesn’t believe that the Lumosity debacle means that the online brain-training movement is (or should be) dead. Brain games have their place. As she explains in the Bottom Line article, Best Workouts to Keep Your Brain “Buff”, games that pit your cognitive skills against the clock do help you hone your attention and memory skills and mental flexibility. Lumosity’s games fit into that category—but you can just as easily get them from video games or free apps on your smartphone.
The cognitive science behind brain games continues to evolve, so their potential can’t be dismissed. There is promising work in using brain games to prevent, and even treat, depression, for example. A new medical field is emerging that uses neurofeedback—devices that let you see how your brain reacts in real time to your thoughts and emotions—to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other attention and anxiety disorders.
Someday, new research may well discover that brain games slow down cognitive decline in aging. Or not. Brain games do no harm, and they sharpen certain cognitive skills, so go ahead and play them if you enjoy them. Just don’t expect miracles.
In the meantime, it’s best to focus on what we know is key to preserving brain health throughout life—regular exercise, a heart-healthy diet, a strong social network and continuing intellectual stimulation. “Real brain health science,” concludes Dr. Green, “lies in how we live.”