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The Truth About Brain Games

You have been conducting research on memory at Furman for more than three decades and were among the researchers who signed a statement criticizing companies who claim they can improve cognitive performance with their “brain games.” What are the problems with those claims?

The “brain games” tend to be advertised in ways that suggest that playing them will produce general benefits in attention, memory, intelligence and even slow down or reverse cognitive decline that tends to accompany normal aging. The problem is that there is no compelling data to back up the claim that playing these games produces general cognitive benefits.

Are there any benefits to these “brain games?” Do they help in any way at all?

The effects of playing these games tend to be very specific; that is, you get better at the particular games that you are practicing. So, after practicing a game for a long time, you get better at that game and you might even perform better on a highly similar game. But, there is no evidence that this practice will improve your attention, memory or problem solving skills in the real world. People often ask whether doing crossword puzzles will help their memory, and my answer is that it will help you retrieve esoteric three-letter words, but there is no evidence that it produces general memory benefits.

If the science doesn’t support the claims of companies like Lumosity, what does current research have to say about our ability to improve things like memory and mental clarity? Are there other effective ways to deal with cognitive decline associated with age?

Absolutely! The research is clear in showing that aerobic exercise produces general benefits on cognitive tests and on the volume of certain structures in the brain. Interestingly, you don’t have to train for a marathon to reap the benefits of exercise—studies show that there are cognitive benefits with as little as six months of brisk walking for 45 minutes three days a week. The research also suggests that staying intellectually engaged may be effective in maintaining your cognitive abilities as you age. So, I would recommend taking courses in Furman’s OLLI program, taking up a new hobby, joining a movie club, and things like that. It’s important to remember that one of the biggest predictors of happiness in old age is being socially connected. So, rather than isolating yourself and playing a brain game, join a group and learn something together.

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