Published on: June 17, 2020
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Challenging your brain with games and puzzles (e.g. crosswords, Sudoku, chess, and computer brain-training games) is commonly believed to help maintain or improve brain health. In a 2015 survey of Americans aged 40 and older, conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), respondents considered several activities “very important to brain health,” including sleep, diet, exercise, and managing stress. When respondents were asked what activity they considered the “most important,” though, challenging the mind with games and puzzles was the most commonly reported answer. That same survey found that 40% of respondents do games and puzzles specifically because they think that it is good for their brains.
However, is the belief that “brain games” give a boost to cognitive function supported by scientific evidence? There is currently no consensus on this subject, partly due to the inconsistency in research design, including how the study defines brain games, how cognitive function is measured, and what population of people is being studied (e.g. their age and current cognitive status).
Cognitively-stimulating activities boost brain health
If you consider the broader question of whether or not cognitively-stimulating activities (i.e. not just games) provide benefits for brain health, then the answer is yes.
In March 2017, experts with the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) reviewed the research on cognitive stimulation, focusing on the strongest evidence available to date – i.e. from well-designed randomized control trials and epidemiological observational studies that had large numbers of participants, and were published in peer-reviewed journals. One of the conclusions that they reached was that cognitively-stimulating activities over the life course, such as engaging in formal or self-initiated informal educational activities, continuing to engage in work experiences, learning a new skill, or engaging in leisure activities that are mentally challenging, provide benefits for adults’ brain health.
The report recommends choosing activities that provide novelty, variety, and a high-level of engagement and mental challenge, while also being enjoyable.
You could learn a new language, volunteer in the community, take up painting, or learn to play a musical instrument, for example. There really are endless ways that you can challenge your brain. And, certainly games that challenge your brain in this way could qualify as a cognitively-stimulating activity.
What about computerized brain games, in particular?
A subset of cognitively-stimulating activities is playing computerized brain games, an increasingly popular pastime. Although the broader category of cognitively-stimulating activities has been found to provide brain benefits, there is disagreement in the research community about the effects of computerized brain games.
In 2014, a group of more than 70 scientists published a consensus statement arguing that computerized brain-training interventions are not a scientifically-proven method for improving cognitive function or preventing cognitive decline. In response, a group of over 120 researchers issued their own statement counter-arguing that there was indeed evidence in support of the cognitive benefits of brain training. Despite the discrepancy between the main conclusions of these two statements, the two groups of scientists did agree on some things, including that:
Later reviews further contributed to the uncertainty around the benefits of CCT. For example:
A review conducted by Dr. Daniel Simons and colleagues, published in October 2016 in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, found “extensive evidence that brain-training interventions improve performance on the trained tasks, less evidence that such interventions improve performance on closely-related tasks, and little evidence that training enhances performance on distantly-related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance.” In other words, they found that playing brain games improved performance at playing brain games and perhaps very similar tasks, but there is not much evidence that the skills learned in these games are transferrable to everyday real-world situations.
The previously-mentioned GCBH review also looked specifically at computerized brain games and concluded that the evidence (as of March 2017) about the benefits of playing such games was “weak to non-existent.” They also warned that the claims made by brain game companies are often exaggerated.
More recently, another review was conducted by Dr. Philip Harvey and colleagues, and published in November 2018 in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. One area of focus for their review was the effect of CCT on healthy older adults. They reviewed the four largest randomized controlled trials and several recent meta-analyses on the subject, noting that the CCT interventions studied varied widely, ranging from casual games to structured scientifically-derived exercises. According to Dr. Harvey, Leonard M. Miller Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Chief of the Division of Psychology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, after reviewing the research to date, “there is consistent evidence that computerized cognitive training improves cognitive performance and some elements of real-world function in healthy older adults.”
He continued, “the real-world functions that were improved were skills that had been previously acquired, such as driving. These studies did not prove that cognitive training leads to skills learning without targeted skills training intervention. We believe that the controversy around whether CCT provides brain benefits was caused by elements of research design, including overly narrow definitions of CCT and overly narrow definitions of learning transfer.”
There are several variables that make it challenging to study the effects of CCT, including the following considerations:
It is possible that there are multiple elements of research design that influence the inconsistent conclusions being reached by researchers. If one type of CCT delivered in a particular way to a certain group of people does not improve cognitive function in some way, that does not necessarily mean that all CCT is ineffective. What is clear, though, is that more research is needed on this subject.
Use it or lose it
The brain is constantly changing throughout one’s lifespan, growing new neurons, and developing new neural connections. It is empowering to know that you can have an impact on how your brain changes as you age, in part by engaging in cognitively-stimulating activities of some kind. For maximum brain-boosting benefits, choose activities that are challenging – ones that force your brain to work and learn new things.
Computerized brain games are one option that you might want to include in your cognitively-stimulating line-up of activities. When choosing a computer-based brain game, the GCBH suggests that you look carefully at what is being offered and review the evidence that the company is using to substantiate any claims they make about the potential benefits.
Remember, you can learn new things and challenge your brain at any age. Perhaps you will choose to play computer-based brain games, but other options can be just as stimulating or even more so. Since novelty and variety are key, aim to integrate several different and ever-changing leisure activities into your life.
Source: MIND OVER MATTER V10
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