Do “brain games” work? Here’s what some of the research literature says

By Jane Tornatore, PhD, and Liz Taylor

“Use it or lose it” has become a popular — and well-researched — motto for keeping our muscles working and healthy through exercise as we age.

Now increasing numbers of companies are using the same expression to claim that, by using their computerized “brain games,” moving to their retirement community, learning a new language or playing their crossword puzzles, older people can exercise their brains enough to avoid one of the most frightening illnesses of all, Alzheimer’s disease.

But is this use of “use it or lose it” accurate?

Is it possible to exercise our brain through new and rigorous mental activities so that it will stay supple and cognitively intact?

We decided to see what some of the most recent (2006-2010) research literature says. The results are decidedly mixed.

Of the approximately 15 articles we reviewed, it’s clear that no overwhelming evidence exists to show that brain games or anything else prevents Alzheimer’s. It’s a disease of extraordinary complexity that has medical science still scratching its head.

On the other hand, there is some evidence that stimulating your brain can improve brain functioning, at least for a time. There’s also no evidence that computerized brain games are better for the brain than other stimulating activities. However, if you like to use brain games, keep it up — and introduce new activities along the way. It’s the new activities that help — they form the new neural pathways in your brain, keeping your mind moving! None of it hurts (except, perhaps, your wallet), and there’s a chance that, even if nothing prevents Alzheimer’s, some of these efforts may keep you functioning normally longer, or at least make you a bit sharper as you go about your day.

The bottom line: staying healthy the old fashioned way is still the best way to keep your body and brain sharp as you age — exercising, eating well, reducing stress, and having an active social life. Stimulating your brain in ways you enjoy is just an added bonus.

Here are three of the most recent articles we reviewed:

“Data Lacking on Prevention of Alzheimer’s, Cognitive Decline,” Health-System Pharmany News, June 15, 2010

“Do Brain Trainer Games and Software Work?” Scientific American, July 2009

“Brain Games: Do They Really Work?” Scientific American, April 28, 2009

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