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Published on: October 28, 2014
by Susan Perry for Minn Post:
If you want to avoid mental decline in older age, don’t count on getting any cognitive “boost” from so-called brain-training video games and other products. There’s no good scientific evidence that they work. Your best bet for countering the effects of aging on the brain is to lead a healthy and active lifestyle — doing things like exercising, socializing, gardening and reading.
That’s the advice given earlier this month in “The Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community” a statement signed by 69 cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists at the Standford Center for Longevity, the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and other institutions around the world.
The document thoroughly scolds the $1.3 billion-a-yer brain-game industry for making “exaggerated and misleading claims [that] exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline.”
“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do,” the scientists write. “The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to data, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles.”
“Perhaps the most pernicious claim, devoid of any scientifically credible evidence, is that brain games prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s disease,” they add.
The statement also warns consumers not to fall for all the brain-game marketing hype — even when it appears to be packaged in a scientific wrapping.
“It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products,” the scientists explain. “In the brain-game market, advertisements also reassure consumers that claims and promises are based on solid scientific evidence, as the games are ‘designed by neuroscientists’ at top universities and research centers. Some companies present lists of credentialed scientific consultants and keep registries of research centers. Often, however, the cited research is only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell.”
The scientists don’t mention any brain-training products by name, but among the best-selling and most heavily marketed ones are Lumosity, Happy Neuron, Posit Science and Rosetta Stone’s Fit Brains.
Not necessarily transferrable
As the scientists point out, brain games target very specific cognitive tasks, but there is very little scientific evidence that getting better at the tasks used in the games transfers in any meaningful way to improvements in more complex, real-life mental skills, like memory, planning and problem-solving.
Even Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco (USCF), whose research has suggested that a certain type of brain-game may help improve broader cognitive abilities, remains cautious about making too-strong claims about his findings.
“He warned me several times that his findings will need more testing and points out that the data is tentative when it comes to how deeply it affects everyday mental performance,” writes freelance journalist Clive Thompson in a New York Times Magazine article, published last Sunday, that featured Gazzaley and his research.
Gazzaley, in fact, is one of the co-signators of the consensus statement, although “he pushed the group to use less pessimistic rhetoric,” as he was worried that negative comments in the document might dry up research funding, reports Thompson.
The scientists who signed the consensus statement also point out that brain-training research, like many other areas of research, suffers from the “file drawer effect” — the practice of researchers not reporting (or “filing away”) studies that have negative outcomes.
“The available evidence is [therefore] likely to draw an overly positive picture of the true state of affairs,” the scientists explain in their statement.
Points to keep in mind
The statement concludes with four recommendations for how we should think about the aging brain and “brain-training”:
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