brain-300x242Does spending over $100 a year for online “brain games” really help your brain?   Apparently not.  It may turn out that seniors are better off going for a hike than sitting down in front of one of the many video games designed to aid the brain, a group of nearly 70 researchers asserted this week in a critique of some of the claims made by the brain-training industry.   In an authoritative 2014 study released by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development, many of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists weighed in on computer-based cognitive-training software, like the ones being marketed online by companies like Elevate, Luminosity,  Fit Brains, CogniFit, Mind Sparke, BrainHQ and Jungle Memory.   These scientists assert that there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life.

The sad fact is that more than 50 studies have examined the benefits of brain training in humans but only a handful have tested whether or not the benefits persist and transfer over to real life.   There is literally no legitimate scientific evidence to support claims by these online brain training websites. Lumosity, for one, made some pretty outrageous claims about its online games.  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fired back: “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting its games could stave off memory loss, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease……..but Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.” In a settlement, the company agreed to nix the ads and refund $2 million to its one million paying subscribers.   One FTC Commissioner took the industry to task, stating that the vagueness of the scientific evidence and the fears everyone has of growing old and losing mental acuity can provide easy pickings for scammers.   Subsequently, Lumosity scaled back its claims to now

It turns out that there’s very little evidence that such “brain training” has more than a short-term effect on overall intelligence or cognitive performance; the largest studies indicate there’s no effect except for performance on the tests themselves — possibly the result of increased familiarity with the tests. After performing a large study, Georgia Tech researchers advised in 2013 that results to the contrary should be viewed “with a critical eye,” as many previous studies were too small or sloppy to be fully trusted.  Similar doubts were voiced by researchers at MIT, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere. And a meta-analysis at the University of Oslo compiling results from 23 studies “cast doubt on both the clinical relevance of working memory training programs and their utility as methods of enhancing cognitive functioning,” its authors wrote. For a good rundown of the leading research in the field, see this overview from Slate.com.

According to a team of seven psychologists  at the University of Illinois who spent two years reviewing every single scientific paper cited by leading brain-training companies in support their products—374 in total — online brain games simply don’t work.Their review was published recently and the team concluded that the studies suffer from a litany of important weaknesses, and provide little or no evidence that brain games improve anything other than the specific tasks being trained. People get better at playing the games, but there are no convincing signs that those improvements transfer to general mental skills or to everyday life. “If you want to remember which drugs you have to take, or your schedule for the day, you’re better off training those instead,” they pointed out.

In fact, exercises for your brain don’t have to cost anything. Seniors can find ways to exercise their brains every day by utilizing resources in their homes and communities. Brain exercises are important to maintain brain function and keep synapses firing and the mind sharp and alert. Seniors can have fun and exercise their brain power at the same time by playing a variety of mind games that stimulate learning processes, enhance memory and help prevent boredom and stagnation.   You can do things like using your imagination or engaging in simple exercises that use your five senses (try buttoning your shirt or tying your shoes with your eyes closed. Try eating with your non-dominant hand, or using the computer mouse with your left hand instead of your right. Try eating a meal with a partner or friend without talking, only utilizing visual cues and gestures to express yourself or your wishes). Other things you can do are:

  • Discover new skills or knowledge though reading books loaned from your local library. Engage the mind by learning a new language or hobby or craft,
  • Physical exercise offers mental benefits as well. Increased blood flow and stimulation of the brain during exercise helps enhance brain health in seniors, according to the “Senior Journal.” Strong blood vessels carry oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the brain, necessary for optimal brain health and development, regardless of age.
  • Tried and true games like chess, Scrabble, bridge and backgammon all use important thinking tools PLUS they are social activities that are interactive with other people, not a computer.   Studies find that social interaction is one of the most important elements in senior health.
  • Engaging with others is not only good for your mind, but also for your physical and mental health.  Social isolation is among the most debilitating conditions among seniors.

The good news is that scientists know that the brain remains malleable, even in old age. That is, stimulating activities like learning a new skill or taking classes can strengthen neural connections and produce other positive changes in the brain. If you want to exercise your brain, study Spanish, take up Ikebana flower arranging, or learn a new game like chess or bridge. You may strengthen those neural connections in your brain, and you’ll almost certainly have fun.  If you feel that you need to use online brain games, there are a number of free resources that include:

  1. ThirdAge Games. Brain fitness is the object of these games featured on this site.
  2. BrainCurls. Find jigsaw puzzles, memory games, and games that sharpen your observation skills here.
  3. Sharp Brains Brain Teasers and Games. These 50 brain teasers and games are meant for keeping your brain fit and young.
  4. Grandparent Games. Meant to keep grandparents and their grandchildren connected through shared online games, you can help keep you brain young while connecting with family.
  5. Braingle. This popular site offers fun brain activities that include brain teasers, riddles, trivia, and brain exercises.
  6. Fit Brains. If you want brain games designed by scientists specifically for promoting brain health, then give these a try.
  7. Games ~ Grandma Faith’s Website. These family-friendly games are meant for both young and old and offer plenty of ways to keep your brain working.
  8. Brain Bashers. The video games here are meant to sharpen your mental acuity while providing entertainment.
  9. Strategy Games. Keep your brain young with these seven strategy games.
  10. AARP.org Games. Chess, puzzles, card games, and multiplayer games are offered here to help aging brains stay sharp.
  11. Games for the Brain. Games like Mastermind, chess, and Sudoku presented here offer you a great way to challenge your brain.
  12. HAPPYneuron. Try the fun games and activities here to keep your brain young.
  13. BrainTraining 101. Find an assortment of different types of challenging brain games here.
  14. Freedom Years Games. Designed especially for seniors, these games include jigsaw puzzles, a memory game, and Sudoku.

But our strong recommendation is keep sharp by keeping active, keeping social and keeping your imagination alive and well.   And save that $10-12 per month for some fun, lively experiences with friends and family.