Do Brain Training Games Work?

Nurturing neurons

Nurturing neurons

We listen to a lot of public radio in my house. Shows like RadiolabThis American Life, and Science 360  make chores go faster and often lead to great conversations. But I bristle every time I hear another sponsorship slogan by a certain program underwriter. It goes something like this: “Lumosity, the brain training program to improve memory and performance, for life.”

Every time I hear it, I think of my dad’s experience. My father moved back to his childhood hometown when he was in his seventies. He was delighted to run across people he’d known decades earlier. They recognized him, asked about his family, reminisced about his mother (who’d been a popular high school teacher), and shared stories of their own lives. It was an absolute thrill for him. He felt rooted, more truly at home than he’d felt for years. “Who you are,” he told me, “is all in what you remember.”

The most gut-wrenching part of moving back, for my dad, was meeting up with his old friend Mitchell.* Our language doesn’t yet have a word for the moment when any of us meets up with someone we’ve known for years, only to realize the other person is suffering from dementia.

Developing dementia of any sort was my father’s worst nightmare. He read every article on prevention and subscribed to various journals so he could keep up with the latest Alzheimer’s disease research. He modified his already stringent diet and intensified his rigorous memory preservation efforts; influenced, in part, by advertisements from “brain training” companies that relentlessly targeted his age group.

He’d recently and very happily remarried, sang in the church choir, went on bike rides, was an enthusiastic bird watcher and gardener. But he’d turn down going to lunch with friends and skip interesting programs at the senior center because he prioritized brain training. He memorized sequential pictures and lists of words, did math problems and crossword puzzles, and clicked through brain training programs for hours every day. He couldn’t have known that his active life would suddenly be cut short by an aneurysm. I’m still saddened by the time he spent indoors hunched over a computer screen instead of letting himself more fully engage in life’s pleasures.

Here’s what’s particularly galling. Experts tell us that more frequent social activities (like the ones my dad kept skipping) offer a protective effect. Studies show that a larger network of regular social contacts is associated with better semantic and working memory well into old age.

Do brain training programs offer similarly protective effects? Not even close.

As the population ages, more and more people are trying to ward off cognitive decline by using brain games like Brain HQ, Dakim Brain Fitness, My Brain Trainer, and of course, Lumosity. (Over 70 million people use Lumosity, many paying $15 a month.) Customers are assured that such programs will improve memory and thinking skills. They’re told these games are backed by scientific evidence. In fact, Lumosity‘s site lists a number of studies.

Those studies, however, may only tangentially relate to the product or cannot be replicated by more exacting researchers. Some of this research is conducted by individuals or institutions with financial links to brain training companies.

And here’s the thing: Improvements in game scores don’t really translate into better cognitive functioning in daily life, especially long-term, even though that’s what motivates people to play in the first place.

A few years ago, the Alzheimer’s Society teamed up with the BBC to launch the Brain Test Britain study. Over 13,000 people participated. The results weren’t promising. People under 60 got better at individual games, but their overall mental fitness didn’t improve. An expanded study to test those over 60 is still being analyzed, but it doesn’t sound like breaking news either.

Sure, players will improve their scores on games they enjoy, but if time spent playing subtracts from other more beneficial activities, it’s time squandered. There’s also worry that when brain training customers believe these games protect them from dementia, they may be less likely to eat right, get enough exercise, and pay attention to other means of prevention.

Scientists are speaking up about this. A joint statement titled “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community” was released last year by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The 70 scientists who participated summed it up this way,

We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline.

All of us are used to companies stretching the truth in order to get more customers. But we live at a time when one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.  It’s estimated that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease will triple in the next 40 years.  (I’m going to be pretty old in 40 years. I bet you will be too.) It’s particularly heinous when companies exploit very realistic fears. When trusted news outlets accept money from these companies, that’s when I turn off the radio.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Alzheimer’s and Autism: Can We Lower The Incidence?

When we come across a new truth we can see how it connects to larger truths. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable, strange, or paradigm-shifting. Sometimes it’s so logical we wonder how it’s not part of our everyday conversation. 

Lately I’ve been reading new research findings. What I’m seeing amplifies what we can see on a larger scale—that we need to work with nature rather than try to control it. In terms of our health that means we must look very carefully at how tactics we’ve used to subvert nature’s designs (relying on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, feeding grains to ruminants, overprocessing foods, genetically modifying foods, super obsessive hygiene, and so on) come back to affect us (and our planet) in ways we hadn’t anticipated. Let’s talk a little about Alzheimer’s research. It’s good news!

I got my first real job when I was 13. It was at a nursing home, where I fed residents who were unable to feed themselves. It was a heart-wrenching experience. There were a few people who suffered from cognitive decline, mostly due to stroke or hardening of the arteries. But most people were there because they couldn’t manage living alone after developing heart disease or emphysema, breaking a hip, going blind, or other overwhelming physical problem. Their frailty frightened me but I also learned a great deal from people 70 and 80 years older than me. In that 100 bed unit, back in the 1970’s, there wasn’t a single patient with Alzheimer’s disease.

Sure, the life-disintegrating disease was first identified in 1901. And yes, detection and diagnosis may very well change the way we track those numbers. Still it’s clear there’s an massive increase in the incidence of Alzheimer’s. It’s seen most often in the developed world, while in rural areas of India and China the risk is very slight. This devastating disease robs of us of our loved ones. It deprives our culture of the elder wisdom we so desperately need. I know of several people who developed it in their late 50’s and early 60’s. I know people suffering with it now. It’s not the new normal.

Recently, some amazing studies have emerged. They aren’t particularly useful to the pharmaceutical industry, where research is geared to big profits in prescription drugs. They aren’t easily applied by the medical establishment which leans toward medications, treatment, and surgeries. Instead they have much more to do with what we eat and the way we live. The clues lead not only to breakthroughs in understanding Alzheimer’s disease but also the rise in autism. Please read the linked information, as I’m only giving a brief overview.

We’ve been advised by experts for decades that dietary cholesterol causes heart disease (it doesn’t, no matter how exhaustively you look at the research). We’ve been prescribed a lifetime of statins when our cholesterol levels are deemed “too high” even though cholesterol is essential for brain function. We’ve been told to eat low fat diets, particularly to avoid foods that we humans have been eating for eons. We’re even told our friend the sun, which fuels all life on this planet, is an enemy best defeated with sunscreen.

Yet we are substantially fatter, developing autoimmune disorders at epidemic rates, with a terrifying surge in autism and Alzheimer’s disease. A report in the New England Journal of  Medicine forecasts a decline in life expectancy in the US.  Clearly we’re on the wrong path.

Blood sugar surges, infection, and inflammation are a few of the many interrelated ways that our brains suffer from an unnatural diet. I urge you to read the technical but entirely worthwhile article by MIT researcher Stephanie Seneff, titled “APOE-4.” To me it reads like a detective work starting with how our brains function, then following clues the brain gives us. She explains how cholesterol contributes to healthy brain function, which is why she urges daily intake of natural fats along with high levels of protein. She also points to the importance of maintaining normal vitamin D and calcium levels while avoiding the rush of elevated blood sugar that comes from eating much of today’s processed foods.  Following her recommendations helps to steer the body away from inflammation and infection which can seriously impair brain health. She also has nothing nice to say about statin drugs.

Her report is in keeping with more recent research (building on studies done over the last few years) that Alzheimer’s disease is related to damage caused by years of blood sugar spikes, which are the side effect of the average western diet. It’s being called diabetes of the brain or type 3 diabetes. This has been all over the news that last few weeks with headlines like “Junk food destroys the brain.” It’s quite a bit more complicated than that (for example, mindfulness practices like meditation reduces inflammation too) but those headlines aren’t lying.

This research also ties in to the increased incidence of autism. A low fat diet plus low vitamin D levels can cause changes to a fetus’ developing brain (please read all the way through this linked article for details). This sets off a cascade of issues, including poor calcium uptake and inflammation. Other promising research links a pregnant woman’s inflammatory response to higher rates of autism in her child. There are other underlying factors, including immune systems that are insufficiently challenged due to overly hygenic lifestyles and even the absence of parasites. And again, it’s much more complicated. It can be related to the father’s age, to gut bacteria, even to one’s ethnic group. Some say autism is the next step in human development, opening us to wider neurodiversity. Neuratypical individuals have unique skills and perspectives that offer society new avenues for progress.

There’s no fault implied in any of these studies. We do the best we can with what we know. But maybe today’s brains are struggling to tell us that well-meaning attempts to make our lives better with sterile environments, processed food, and indoor lives simply takes us too far from our roots in nature. Maybe they’re telling us pollution, particularly ultrafine particle pollution, can cause degenerative brain diseases. More research needs to be done, but there’s plenty we can do right now.

eat anti-inflammatory foods 

eat healthy fats 

get enough vitamin D


For more information check out:

Know Your Fats : The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol

Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats

The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body

Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia

The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today