This month’s expert is Neil Charness, PhD, William G. Chase Professor of Psychology and Director of the Institute for Successful Longevity at Florida State University.
Dear Dr. Charness,
I often see ads for brain-training programs that promise to improve my memory. Some even suggest using their product could prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Should I believe these claims?
I receive this question frequently and the simple response is: no. Brain-training games do not appear to have long term benefits for brain health that translate to everyday performance gains and they have not yet been shown to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Why do the makers of some brain-training products make these claims? Writer Upton Sinclair probably expressed it best when he wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
In other words, a generous dose of skepticism is recommended if a product – like a brain game – makes a very strong claim and the makers of that product stand to profit from those promises.
Now, let’s talk about the science behind the claims made by some brain-game makers. Recently, I tackled the question of brain games and their long-term impact on brain health with a group of colleagues through the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) and earlier with a large-scale review – Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? – that involved a different group of colleagues. We reviewed scientific evidence on the value of brain training games and considered the claims these products make about their potential benefit.
We found brain-training games improve performance on specific activities that are practiced over time. For example, if you play a memory game every day for six months, you’re very likely to become better at that particular game. But, does that mean your memory is sharper overall? And will any improvement be maintained over time without further practice? The answer to both of those questions is again, no.
So, Beth, be skeptical of pay-to-play games that claim to improve memory as well as prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. If you enjoy playing these games, by all means do so. However, if you want to maintain your brain, my GCBH colleagues and I recommend engaging in physical activity like walking, hiking or gardening.
It’s also good to challenge your brain’s normal thinking patterns by learning something new. Studying a foreign language or a musical instrument both are excellent ways to exercise your brain. And finally, there’s nothing like volunteering in order to get involved in something bigger than yourself. For other ideas on how to stay sharp while not shelling out your hard-earned money on brain games, click here.