A new study found only small benefits of brain training software for healthy, older adults. Luckily, other activities can still keep the brain healthy as you age.
There’s nothing more enticing than the promise of gaining mental riches simply by playing a game on your computer or smartphone for a few minutes a day. Unfortunately, at least in the case of seniors, these brain training apps produce only small benefits for overall brain health, and the skills developed while mentally working out are unlikely to spill over into day-to-day life.
In a study published online Nov. 18 in PLOS Medicine, Australian researchers reviewed 52 previous studies that looked at the benefits of computerized brain training software for 4,885 healthy seniors. While brain training programs like Lumosity, Cogmed, and Posit Science promise to help you strengthen your brain, the new study found mostly small benefits.
The largest impact of the software was on thinking speed, but the results were only moderate. Smaller benefits were seen for nonverbal and verbal memory, working memory, and visual/spatial skills. Attention and executive function — which include essential skills like planning and concentrating — did not improve significantly for people using the brain training apps.
Even though the benefits seen in the new study were small, the concept of training the brains of older adults is based on sound science — what’s known as neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change in response to new activities and the environment.
“They used to think that neuroplasticity occurs mainly in children, which is obviously true,” said Dr. Jon Lieff, a psychiatrist who specializes in geriatric psychiatry and shares information about brain health on his website Searching for the Mind, “but for older people there is still a lot of neuroplasticity.”
Even previous studies that found some mental improvements from home brain training show that people have difficulty extending the benefits beyond the task at hand.
“For the most part, computerized cognitive trainings do not generalize outside the activities,” said Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., founder of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas and author of “Make Your Brain Smarter: Increase Your Brain’s Creativity, Energy and Focus.” “Individuals get better at the computer-trained activities, but not at the complex reasoning and decision-making that is the key to everyday life cognition.”
The Australian researchers noticed that seniors in their study analysis who used brain training software at home showed very little mental improvement compared to those who worked in a group with a trainer.
The scientists suggest that having a trainer on hand may have helped by providing people with motivation and easy technical support. But there’s also a social component to group sessions that is likely to impact the brain.
“The more people have contact with people, the more their brain is stimulated,” said Lieff. “Isolation is the worst thing for anyone, but particularly for the elderly.”
Although brain training apps can be a fun way to waste time while waiting for the subway, people hoping to turn their brain power up a notch may want to take a more well-rounded — and social — approach.
“Doing a stale video game is okay,” said Lieff, “but there are far better activities for health, and for the immune system and for the brain.”
This includes, of course, eating right, sleeping well, and exercising. But it also involves activities like music, says Lieff, that challenge many parts of the brain at once. And don’t rule out mainstays such as reading and playing a board game, which other studies have found can benefit the brain.
“The arts, creative things, helping the community, being active in service — those are all things that are not only tremendously good for the brain, but also because you’re helping, you actually stimulate your immune system to be healthier,” Lieff said.