Are brain training tools effective? Here’s a sobering statistic. According to the Alzheimer’s Association – one in three seniors will die with Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s another scary one – a woman in her sixties has a one in six chance of developing Alzheimer’s. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be one of those people.
Wouldn’t we all like to be as sharp at age 80 as we were in your younger years? Some people manage to do that. I know a 90-year-old veterinarian who’s still writing veterinary textbooks. Does he simply have good genetics? Possibly, but we know that lifestyle plays a role in how rapidly the brain ages.
[pullquote]A man’s brain is 10% larger than a woman’s. BUT, women have a larger hippocampus, a portion of the brain involved in memory.[/pullquote]
Lifestyle, of course, includes diet and physical activity. We know that physical exercise of the aerobic kind seems to slow brain aging by boosting the size of the hippocampus, a portion of the brain involved in memory and cognition – but what about mental exercise?
You’ve probably seen ads for brain exercise games and brain training tools? These ads claim a certain brain training system will help keep your brain fit. Some even go so far as to say playing brain games help ward off Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Can exercise of the mental type be as effective as physical exercise for preserving brain health? Can you really improve your brain health and lower your risk of dementia with brain training and brain exercise games? Let’s see what research shows so far.
Your Brain is Remarkably Adaptable
Think about how physical exercise changes your body – how your body adapts to the stress you place on it and how you become stronger and fitter after a few months of working out. Why wouldn’t exercising your brain with brain teaser games and puzzles do the same thing?
Just as your body adapts to novel stimuli, so can your brain. In fact, your brain has a special attribute called “neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity describes how your brain changes in response to environmental exposure – how it forms new connections and strengthens existing ones.
Your brain maintains neuroplasticity throughout life – otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to learn a new language or a new skill as an adult. We won’t go into all the boring details here but, in a few sentences, here’s what happens.
When you expose your brain to new stimuli, brain cells called neurons forge new connections. Just as your brain can form new connections, connections can also weaken Have you ever seen someone you know but couldn’t quite remember their name? This happens to everyone. When you really have to worry is when you can’t remember your name!
So, why is it so hard to retrieve this information? The neural pathways involved in retrieving their name no longer function as well. Even when your brain lets you down and can’t retrieve a name when you need it, it’s still a remarkable organ.
Even if you damage your brain, it, in many cases, can reorganize and form new connections. That’s neuroplasticity at work!
Fit Brain Games & Training: Do They Keep Your Brain Healthy?
Now you know how adaptable your brain really is. Can brain training tools and brain exercises really change your brain and make it more efficient? No doubt these exercises give your brain a workout but are the effects substantial and are they sustainable?
An interesting study involving 2,800 older adults suggests they are. The adults were divided into groups. One group took part in computer games designed to sharpen their brain processing speed. Another took part in training games that emphasized reasoning while a final group received memory training.
Remarkably, when they tested the three groups ten years later, the first two groups were still performing at a higher cognitive level than before their training a decade ago. That’s pretty impressive!
But, don’t sign up to play brain games just yet. A group of Australian scientists dug a little deeper by doing a thorough, systematic review of commercially available brain training programs. After looking at 18 of them, they found that only 2 had multiple studies carried out to assess their benefits. These programs worked on improving processing speed, how rapidly your visual system gathers information and sends it to your brain.
With this type of training, you look at a screen and the computer flashes a brief image toward your central vision and peripherally. You have to identify when and where you saw the image each time. It seems that your brain gets better at doing this through the process we discussed, neuroplasticity. But, these aren’t your typical brain games.
Most brain games test factors like memory. While you might get better at the particular task the brain games asks you to do, it doesn’t necessarily translate into real-life benefits and improvements in brain function. You become better at one particular activity but it doesn’t necessarily make it easier to remember your grocery list or where you left your car keys.
The majority of studies show brain training and fit brain games offer only modest benefits. Despite what we know, there’s still not enough evidence to say brain training and exercises can prevent Alzheimer’s disease, although they may delay its onset.
[pullquote]Did you know multi-tasking can actually make you “dumber?” Research shows our brains simply aren’t designed to do too many things at once. [/pullquote]
How Physical Exercise Impacts Brain Health
Exercising your body is just as important, or even more so, than exercising your brain. Exercise turns on a protein called brain-derived neurotropic factor, also called BDNF. BDNF is like fertilizer and brain cells are the plants. Sprinkle some on and it stimulates the formation of new nerve cells from stem cells (precursor cells) in your brain.
BDNF also helps protect existing nerve cells against death. In addition, exercise improves the way blood vessels function in your brain. This reduces your risk for arterial blockages that can affect brain function.
Sadly, the gray matter in your brain shrinks with age. This process begins after the age of 30. Here’s some good news. Exercise helps reduce brain shrinkage and loss of gray matter. More than one study shows exercising during middle age improves cognitive function and memory. Some studies show low vitamin B12 is linked with brain atrophy.
If that’s not enough to convince you about the importance of exercise – maybe this will. A 35-year study found exercise, offers the greatest benefits for warding off dementia. Other lifestyle factors that lower the risk of dementia include not smoking, eating a healthy diet, not overindulging in alcohol and maintaining a normal body weight.
Need another reason to exercise your body for brain health? Exercise is a mood elevator. Some research shows exercise is as effective as prescription antidepressants for elevating mood in people who are depressed. That’s powerful!
[pullquote]Your brain accounts for only about 2% of your weight but uses 20% of your body’s resources. It’s an energy sucker! [/pullquote]
Exercise also releases powerful brain chemicals called endorphins. Ever heard of a runner’s high? That’s the feeling of peace and tranquility runners sometimes get after they’ve run a certain distance. Endorphins help dull sensations of discomfort – you need that when you run a long time- and elevate your mood. Having experienced this myself when exercising, it’s very real. Brain games probably won’t give you those kinds of benefits. Pssst! Here are some other ways to keep your brain health:
Are Brain Training Games Effective?
We think exercising your body ultimately offers more brain health benefits than brain exercise games do. On the other hand, we encourage you to do both. If you have the inclination, learn a new language. Did you know a large study showed speaking two languages may lower the risk for Alzheimer’s disease?
If learning a new language doesn’t excite you, participate in games that force you to think ahead and use your memory skills like chess or bridge. An added benefit is you interact with people when you play these games. Having a strong social network and support system lowers the risk of dementia.
[pullquote]95% of the decisions you make take place subconsciously, beneath your level of awareness. [/pullquote]
Carry a crossword puzzle book with you and fill it in when you have some downtime. Even better, a book of 399 games, puzzles, & trivia challenges. Take a course at a local college or university. Learn to play a musical instrument. What a great way to work your brain in a new way and develop a new skill!
Also, get outside into nature and explore. Nature has a calming effect on the mind and helps reduce stress. That’s ultimately good for the health of your brain. Spend more time traveling to new locations. Being in a new place and exploring new vistas forces your brain to form new pathways.
When you drive to work in the morning, take a new path and see new sights rather than taking the old, familiar route. When you get into the same routine every day, you stop really seeing what’s around you and your brain doesn’t have to work as hard. A brain that doesn’t work becomes lazy, just as muscles you don’t move atrophy.
What do all of these things have in common? They help to build up cognitive reserve, functional areas of your brain that can take up the slack should another part lose its mojo. The more cognitive reserve you build up throughout life, the more protected you are against dementia and loss of brain health. So, learn, learn, learn. Be curious! Ask questions – lots of them.
Finally, stay active. Exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, is the most powerful tool you have in your brain health arsenal. It’s a natural when it comes to keeping your brain healthy.
[pullquote]When you’re awake, your brain produces enough electricity to light a small light bulb. [/pullquote]
Hope we’ve convinced you to do something to increase your heart rate every day. It’s not just good for your heart – it’s good for your brain too. What about brain games? If you enjoy them, do them. But, you can also work your brain by doing simple activities like thinking up as many uses as you can for an object. That challenges your ability to be creative. Try spelling words backward as quickly as you can. Activities like this all force your brain out of its comfort zone and help it adapt.
Of course, we could talk in depth about diet, as it too plays a role in cognitive health, but we’ll save it for a future article. A Mediterranean-style diet seems to offer substantial benefits for brain health.
The Bottom Line: Are Brain Training Games Effective?
Challenge your brain but you don’t necessarily have to do it by signing up for Luminosity or another brain game site. There’s no strong evidence that this type of brain training translates into real-life benefits. In fact, you’ll likely get more benefit by getting your heart rate up through exercise.
We would encourage you to challenge your brain in other ways though. As mentioned, learning a new language, a musical instrument, or learning something entirely new builds the cognitive reserve you need to help your brain weather the impact of aging.
Int J Psychiatry Med. 2011;41(1):15-28.
Medscape.com. “Low Vitamin B12 Tied to Brain Atrophy, Cognitive Impairment”
Alzheimer’s Association. “Alzheimer’s Facts and Figures” National Institute of Health. “Cognitive training shows staying power”
Eur J Neurosci. 2008 Dec;28(11):2278-87. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-9568.2008.06524.
Mayo Clin Proc. 2011 Sep;86(9):876-84. doi: 10.4065/mcp.2011.0252.
The Independent. “Exercise most effective lifestyle choice for preventing dementia, researchers say”
J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci (2003) 58 (2): M176-M180. doi: 10.1093/gerona/58.2.M176.
Fast Company. “This is the Only Type of Brain Training That Works, According to Science”