The Alzheimer’s Association reports there are currently five million people living with dementia, and as the baby boomer generation enters its golden years and the numbers continue to grow, memory care is rapidly becoming a pressing concern in the United States.
The hunt is on for new support programs, care techniques, and technologies that may offer a solution.
There’s been a not in considerable buzz in healthcare surrounding the plethora of brain training applications and programs that claim, endorsed by neuroscientists, to reduce your risk of memory problems and dementia. But how accurate is that information?
Clinical studies offer conflicting viewpoints.
What is Brain Training?
Put simply, brain training is the act of playing games that stimulate cognitive functions. Memory games, logic puzzles, crosswords and even reading forces you to reason and access long term memory, essentially exercising your brain the same way you would a muscle. The problem with this theory is the brain is not a muscle like the heart. It is a complex network of neurons and synapses.
The brain is, however, pliable in the sense that it is always trying to form more efficient and productive pathways. If you think of the nervous system as a series of highways, the brain is the administrator looking to map out better routes. Some scientists believe that braining training amps up this process.
Does Brain Training Work?
There is no easy answer to this question and many conflicting views, according to the Stanford Center on Longevity. The proper question might be “Does brain training work as well as the promoters say it will?” Studies indicate that cognitive training does help, but the benefits may be exaggerated in the media— especially for healthy individuals.
For those not currently suffering from cognitive decline, the improvement offered by brain training is marginal. Companies looking to sell games and packages to train the brain take this little bit of promise and expand on it to develop marketing campaigns. Any mental stimulation or attempt to learn is positive, but for people that are healthy, the real benefit is in entertainment and the preventative care such games have the potential to provide.
Where brain training plays its most significant a role is with the elderly. Studies that focus on the aging population have shown brain training to be an effective tool. Age related cognitive decline means poor short term memory and a reduction in reasoning skills.
A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society of some 3,000 older adults offers proof that cognitive training is productive for those showing signs of decline:
- Improving mental processing
- Enhancing memory
- Advancing reasoning ability
The seniors in this study completed brain training sessions regularly for five years and showed improvement compared to those in the control group who did not play the games. The memory improvement began to decline after the five year milestone, while processing and reasoning continued to improve. Even after 10 years, the researchers felt encouraged by the progress of the study participants in everything but memory.
Does Brain Training Prevent Alzheimer’s?
That is one downside to the media exposure given to brain games. Brain training cannot stop an underlying degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s. People with Alzheimer’s have significant damage to their brain cells, especially those in the hippocampus, the area responsible for forming new memories. Braining training does not stop that progression.
That’s not to say, however, that brain training is a useless pursuit.
Those starting to show decline will likely see some benefit, especially in processing speed and reasoning even though, as most studies, show it does not help stop ongoing memory decline.
The studies to date are far from conclusive, however. As medical science continues to unravel the mystery behind Alzheimer’s disease, memory care tactics will improve and that may or may not involve more brain training. Time will tell, but it is safe to say this will continue to be a hotly debated issue.