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.

Update. The creators of Lumosity have agreed to pay the Federal Trade Commission a 2 million dollar fine for lying to customers. “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”

12 thoughts on “Do Brain Training Games Work?

  1. Thank you for this! I have had a similar reaction to these brain training games. They feed into our deepest fears and offer nothing but false hope. And, for me, the cardinal sins are: 1) you play them alone, and even worse, 2) they’re not fun.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In this case, the science they’re using is being applied in the same way most modern science is applied: in tiny little individual boxes. When studies are done on, for example, the use of a nutritional supplement, or a particular diet program, they never look at what it is doing for the body as a whole. “Studies prove that X supplement does nothing to cure Y ailment.” Well, no, but what *did* it do? The body is not a machine where you input this command code here and out pops this result. You put something in, you’re going to get a dozen different responses from all different areas. Wait a while, and brand new results will pop out from a dozen brand new places. Modern medicine views the body like a machine and they’re only looking for this one thing that causes this one result, screw everything else.

    So these games do produce the results based on the science of neuroplasticity, but as you said, those results are only in relation to scores in a game, because that’s all they cared about. They didn’t take it and apply it to the whole person, the whole body, the whole life. I’m sure you’re aware that this is basically public schooling for the elderly.

    With that said, I’m slightly grateful for the big marketing push around neuroplasticity because I never would have been able to find all the information and research on it to help me heal from a personality disorder. It’s kind of hard to be upset about something that has helped me to get rid of the depression and anxiety and suicidal thoughts I’ve dealt with every single day since before puberty.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree wholeheartedly Cassandra. If you have time, I would love it if you could comment with a few links to research on neuroplasticity that’s helped you ease your own difficulties. I know I’d appreciate it and I’m sure others would too.

      (Sure you’ve heard it before, but I’m fascinated by the mythological resonance of your name. In Greek myth Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but when she spurned his advances he decreed that her prophecies wouldn’t be believed. Do you feel it corresponds when your thoughts are ahead of the crowd?)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on The Real Life of Natacha Beim and commented:
    Interesting perspective from LAURA GRACE WELDON, and a very touching and personal story. Being on the other side of the spectrum, in the Early Learning world, I see a similar “approach” to the one Laura shared: programs promising “academic excellence” and making misleading allegations about the benefits of their programs.
    As a fervent believer in early brain development, and as someone who dedicates two hours daily to research on child development and brain development, it saddens me to see that many profit from public fear and uncertainty, when they do not really understand the subject.
    Are there things we can do that promote healthy brain development? Most certainly, and at any age, but as Laura eloquently points out, not at the expense of a healthy, happy, balanced life.
    Thank you Laura for your blog post!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Laura, Once again, you are on top of this important topic. I agree with the game stuff. I can speak from my 81 y/o “brain-perch”. I do believe that it is helpful to be learning new things, e.g. taking up a musical instrument or a Courasura Course.My “bible” for 25 years has been William Zinsser’s “Writing to Learn”. My ” old-age” learning project has recently been blogging. In addition to content, the mechanics in getting one’s essay out into the bloggisphere provides me plenty of challenges. I love following your publications as examples to follow! Thanks, c

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks, Laura. I’m getting ready to write a rememberance piece for my uncle who passed away a couple of weeks ago from dementia. My mother and I would laugh at the story she told me about her brother. He was to take pills for his memory but he left the bottle in the car and forgot about them. We are a family that always could laugh at adversity…
    As Natacha and you point out, the cycle begins at birth with programs designed for “rapid baby development”…
    I love your blog posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Might as well laugh….

      Here’s a story. A friend and her siblings took turns hosting their grandmother for a month each so they all could share in her care at the late stages of dementia. This lady had always been tiny, but her disease had progressed to the point that she couldn’t remember if she’d eaten or not. When it was time for the next sibling’s family to pick her up, my friend prepared a big dinner for everyone. She left a Honeybaked ham on the dining room table and went in the kitchen to finish up the rest of the dishes. Less than half hour later she went back in the dining room. Somehow her grandmother had eaten more than half the ham all by herself.

      Later, as the grandmother was leaving, she said quite clearly that she was glad to get “out of this place.” Why, she was asked. She said, “They don’t feed you here.”

      Liked by 1 person

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