Do “Brain Games” Actually Improve Memory?

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Memory loss affects about 16 million elderly Americans, representing 40 percent of those 65 years of age or older.

Though only 15 percent of impaired memory sufferers eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease, even milder forms of the disorder can complicate many aspects of daily life. Remembering names, dates and other details becomes increasingly difficult as the condition progresses.

In an effort to sharpen their cognitive ability, some people play games such as brain teasers, riddles, logic problems, quizzes, crosswords and other puzzles, Sudoku and online video games. The question is whether these activities are worthwhile.

Some studies have suggested there is some benefit, in terms of mood balancing as well as memory improvement, for people with minor problems. However, brain games do not appear to be of much help to those who diagnosed with dementia.

Game makers have been sued for allegedly exaggerating the effectiveness of their products, and researchers report mixed results from clinical trials. In an effort to determine the true value of brain games, scientists with the Mind Centre at the University of Sydney in Australia recently reviewed 29 studies from the past two decades.

The “meta-analysis” focused on the records of about 700 people who took part in the studies. Seventeen of the trials involved adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a minor loss of thinking and memory abilities. The other 12 studies featured dementia patients.

The researchers reported that brain-training activities helped the MCI volunteers with “global cognition, memory, learning and attention, mood, and self-perceived quality of life.” There was no such payoff for the study participants with dementia.

“Our research shows that brain training can maintain or even improve cognitive skills among older people at very high risk of cognitive decline, and it’s an inexpensive and safe treatment,” wrote Dr. Amit Lampit of the university’s School of Psychology, the study’s lead author.

However, he cautioned that group studies in supervised settings may produce different results than individuals experience on their own. When Lampit’s team revisited data from a 2014 meta-analysis, they discovered a wide discrepancy in the effectiveness of group settings versus solitary situations.

“Think of it this way,” Lampit told Health.com. “For most people, joining a gym or aerobic class is more likely to help them achieve the results they want than buying home fitness equipment. Similarly, doing cognitive training in a supervised format will help people to persevere with their training program, do the exercises that fit them best, and problem-solve on the fly.”

A 2017 study at the University of Pennsylvania cast doubt on the value of online brain-training programs. According to Psychology Today, the researchers found that the games “had no discernible effect on the brain, or cognitive performance or anything else.”

The clinicians who led the study, Joseph Kable and Caryn Lerman, wanted to know how the computer programs affect a person’s “executive function,” which pertains to the cognitive capacity of the brain’s prefrontal cortex.

“It’s a set of brain regions that basically seem to be engaged whenever tasks are hard,” Kable said. He explained that a key question is whether the skills derived from playing a game “transfers” to daily life, a phenomenon that cognitive-video marketers often promote.

The researchers recruited 128 young adults, and had some of them play the Lumosity computer game for 10 weeks. Other volunteers were given online games not designed to boost thinking and memory abilities.

The outcome was the same for both groups. “There was no effect on brain activity, no effect on cognitive performance and no effect on decision-making,” Psychology Today reported.

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