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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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Cathy October 13, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Hi Madeleine,

Exercise is what I try to do to keep myself fit. I enjoy many of those other games, but I see your point that it’s not necessarily prevention.
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2 Madeleine Kolb October 15, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Cathy, I’d say that writing a blog involves a great deal of cognitive activity, given the technical part, the writing, the constant small improvements one makes, participation in forums, and related activities. And that’s just one part of your life (and mine).

Brain workouts aren’t limited to specific games or puzzles. They’re everywhere. For example, in my previous post I wrote about Toastmasters. A friend with many years of participation calls it “Gold’s Gym for the mind.”

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3 Jeanette Lewis October 14, 2011 at 6:44 pm

Keeping my brain active is an important aspect of staying engaged. I don’t think of brain activity as ‘exercise’ per se. My ‘exercise’ is usually physical and happens at the gym and the pool.
Another important aspect of brain health is sleep. Since retiring, I have been able to sleep 7 or 8 hours every night which is giving many health (and brain) benefits.
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4 Madeleine Kolb October 15, 2011 at 12:31 pm

That’s an excellent point. Sleep is essential at every age, but in those years when we have jobs and/or children and other responsibilities we often don’t get enough. It makes a huge difference to finally be able to get as much sleep as our bodies and minds need.

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5 Bonnie McFarland October 16, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Thanks for easing my guilt about not doing the brain games, Madeleine. I have been playing with one of these sites in the last week. It’s been fun & not my “go-to” recreation.

I love to read. And my business keeps my brain working writing blog posts, figuring out technology, designing classes and programs, and on and on and on.
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6 Madeleine Kolb October 16, 2011 at 4:39 pm

And the thing is that you have something to show for all the time and brain power that goes into writing posts, designing classes, and doing all the related activities. Yet another good reason why we don’t need (or have time for) brain fitness games.

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7 Bonnie McFarland October 18, 2011 at 8:57 pm

You might have convinced me to skip the brain games, Madeleine. Unless I want to do them just for the fun of it.
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8 Anna October 25, 2011 at 3:25 am

Keeping the brain active is very important at all ages, and some say that Alzheimer’s disease can be avoided if we do train our brains all the time, even in our old ages, even though we do not know how Alzheimer’s develops, as you say. I am doing Sudoku for brain exercise, funny, but all I can say is that I am addicted to it :).
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9 Madeleine Kolb October 25, 2011 at 9:18 am

Anna, I’m certainly not opposed to doing Sudoku for brain exercise. I think it’s important to stay active physically, mentally, and socially at any age, especially in our 50s or 60s and beyond. It’s vital to keep exercising the body and the mind, and life offers so many ways to do that. For me, some of those ways are things I’ve been doing for years. Some I’ve taken up more recently. I just don’t subscribe to the idea that certain games or products will make a difference.

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