How are those brain fitness games going?

by Madeleine Kolb

The math teacher

A recent online discussion pondered why more middle-aged and older adults didn’t take advantage of brain fitness programs that could help prevent or delay memory loss.

This is a reasonable question, given the fairly dramatic increase in the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease (and other dementias) with age.

Alzheimer’s is terrifying. Surely, if there were something—anything—a person could do to prevent it or delay its onset, you’d think that everyone over the age of 50 (maybe even 40) would be doing those things as if his brain absolutely depended on it. You might think this. But it’s not at all clear that you’d be right.

Five reasons it doesn’t make sense to spend time on brain fitness games

1. Alzheimer’s Disease is not well understood

We don’t know what causes it, we don’t know how to diagnose it in a living person* and we don’t know how to treat it. Therefore, how certain can we be that we have a sure-fire way to prevent it or delay it?

2. Many of the brain fitness programs out there claim that they “may” prevent or delay memory loss

And they may. Then again, they may not. Some studies of this matter have concluded that the result of doing lots of crossword puzzles or suduku is to make one better and better at doing those specific activities. But there seems to be no carry-over to other cognitive tasks.

3. Many middle-aged and older adults work at jobs which offer plenty of cognitive challenges

Think teachers, researchers, engineers, lawyers, writers, entertainers, nurses, doctors, elected officials and so on. The combined challenges of their work, family, and recreation offer a plethora of ways to keep the brain humming along in top working order. 

4. In addition, many of these jobs involve lots of sitting in front of a computer

Online brain fitness games are more of the same, as are crossword puzzles and similar games. Arguably, we would all benefit from less sitting in front of a computer, not more. Which brings us to the next point.

5. Many in the 50+ age group exercise regularly, which studies suggest “may” reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

More than one researcher who studies performance as a function of age has concluded that

What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.

For all its dazzling cognitive powers, the brain is basically just another organ, like the liver or the pancreas. And, like them, it needs ample supplies of oxygen and glucose to do its job and do it well.

Choosing your own brain workouts

Life is full of brain workouts. Some are pleasurable, some not so much. For me, one in the first category is reading. (The last book I finished was “Not a Chimp: The hunt to find the genes that make us human” by Jeremy Taylor.)

Included in my Necessary-But-Not-So-Pleasurable category are doing my taxes (although Turbo Tax makes it as painless as possible) and navigating  from home to a place I’ve never been before and back—on time, in the rain, and in heavy traffic as I did several weeks ago. (Although, admittedly, most of the cognitive challenge is programmed into my GPS, even when I miss a turn-off because of traffic and poor visibility).

What about you? What are your Cognitive Challenges of Choice? Do you use brain fitness games or do you think that your life offers enough brain exercise? What challenges come with your work? What comes with outside activities? Do you choose activities working with others in a club or association? I welcome your comments.

* There is one approach still being investigated for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

photo by 20406121@N04

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