Several years ago at Christmas time one of my nephews gave me some brain challenging puzzles. Briefly I was able to fool him (and myself!) by my being able to solve two of them in a few minutes. Then my beloved, intellectually curious grand nieces and nephews (ages 5 through 8) proceeded to provide a context for my achievements by taking apart the remaining two puzzles which I had recognized as too difficult for me! Alas, they then lost interest and I still haven’t figured out how to put the puzzles back together!
Later I was invited by one to play a board game “Brain Games for Kids.” My mind was indeed blown away as he outperformed me very quickly. My solace was that he probably had memorized all the questions and answers. Also, he had earlier shown me (on “his” computer which he had “built”) a school project he had on his Google-drive account.
Are these additional signs of effects on my aging brain? I must confess I subsequently spent more of my research time focusing on the topics of brain health and aging!
In an earlier blog piece I summarized five preliminary conclusions I had reached as a result of my immersing myself with my research students and investigating the claims of brain fitness training companies.
- “Brain Training” and brain health products is a huge, lucrative and growing industry with very expensive market research reports! Alas, I did not have the $7,150 to purchase such a report. Click this link to read the abstract.
- There exist a number of excellent, current, well-written and understandable science-based guides to maintaining cognitive fitness and brain health (e.g. Click this link to see an example of this Harvard Medical School paper).
- There exist excellent scholarly reviews of the efficacy (and validity of claims made) of “brain fitness” programs. The best such review is by Daniel J. Simons et al. which can be found here: (Click this link to see it in full). Among the authors’ important conclusions and advice most germane to this blog piece (and the next series i am contemplating writing) are the following:
“Consumers should also consider the comparative costs and benefits of engaging in a brain-training regimen. Time spent using brain-training software could be allocated to other activities or even other forms of “brain training” (e.g., physical exercise) that might have broader benefits for health and well-being. That time might also be spent on learning things that are likely to improve your performance at school (e.g., reading; developing knowledge and skills in math, science, or the arts), on the job (e.g., updating your knowledge of content and standards in your profession), or in activities that are otherwise enjoyable. If an intervention has minimal benefits, using it means you have lost the opportunity to do something else. If you find using brain-training software enjoyable, you should factor that enjoyment into your decision to use it, but you should weigh it against other things you might do instead that would also be enjoyable, beneficial, and/or less expensive.
When evaluating the marketing claims of brain-training companies or media reports of brain-training studies, consider whether they are supported by peer-reviewed, scientific evidence from studies conducted by researchers independent of the company. As we have seen, many brain-training companies cite a large number of papers, but not all of those directly tested the effectiveness of a brain-training program against an appropriate control condition. Moreover, many of the studies tested groups of people who might not be like you. It is not clear that results from studies of people with schizophrenia will generalize to people without schizophrenia, or that benefits found in studies of college students will generalize to older adults. Finally, just because an advertisement appears in a trusted medium (e.g., National Public Radio) or is promoted by a trusted organization (e.g., AARP) does not mean that its claims are justified. Consumers should view such advertising claims with skepticism.”
4. Many cognitive training studies and brain training companies overpromise results, cite the same methodologically faulty studies, cite studies funded by their organization, ignore best practice experimental designs (see point 2 above), and fail to take into consideration placebo effects (Here is a simple, well-designed, study indicating how EXPECTATIONS may cause the outcome attributed to cognitive training.)
5. Many helpful insights into memory loss can be gleaned from literature such as Lisa Genova’s Still Alice and from individuals sharing first-hand experiences such as in the beautiful blogging in Sally Remembers. Over the next few months I plan to focus my writing on expanding upon these points by examining recent claims. I shall take a look at products such as that pictured below that claim their products are backed by “clinical trials.” I actually still have the energy, motivation and developed cognitive skills to find, to read, to reflect upon and to evaluate such claims.
Can you train your brain to drive longer into your golden years? Such was the headline that appeared in my LinkedIn feed today that caught my interest. So I hunted down the original article (rather than trust that which was summarized) AND I contacted the author of the article asking her what she thought of the claims being made for her study. Stay tuned…
— Still curious at age 72