If you think that you can improve your brain by playing brain-training games, save your time and money, say researchers from Florida State University.
"Our findings and previous studies confirm there's very little evidence these types of games can improve your life in a meaningful way," said Wally Boot, an expert on age-related cognitive decline and an associate professor of psychology at FSU.
A growing number of people believe that brain training protects them against memory loss associated with aging. "Brain challenges like crossword games are a popular approach, especially among baby boomers, as a way to try to protect cognition," said Neil Charness, professor of psychology and a leading authority on aging and cognition.
The belief is fueling the brain-training industry, which has become a billion-dollar business. Games are available online and through mobile apps for about $15 a month. But the Federal Trade Commission is looking at companies' brain-boosting claims, and fined one for false advertising.
"More companies are beginning to be fined for these types of inflated claims and that's a good thing," Boot said. "These exaggerated claims are not consistent with the conclusions of our latest study."
For their study, the FSU team focused on whether brain games could improve the "working memory" needed for a variety of tasks. They set up one group of people to play a specially designed brain-training video game called "Mind Frontiers," while another group of players performed crossword games or number puzzles.
Researchers tested whether the games enhanced players' working memory and therefore improved other mental capabilities, such as reasoning, memory and processing speed.
That's the theory behind many brain games: If you improve overall working memory, which is fundamental to so much of what we do every day, then you can enhance performance in many areas of your life. "The thing that seniors in particular should be concerned about is, if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are?" said Charness.
The team examined whether improving working memory transfer would translate to better performance on other tasks, something the researchers called "far transfer."
"The answer is probably no," says Charness.
What does work to improve aging brains? Exercise, he says, and predicts that "exer-gaming," which combines exercise with brain games, will increase in popularity.
"If your real goal is to improve cognitive function and brain games are not helping, then maybe you are better off getting aerobic exercise rather than sitting in front of the computer playing these games," he said.
One activity that might fit into the area of exer-gaming is dance. A study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that dance was the most effective way to reduce the risk of dementia.
Seniors who took part in brain-stimulating activities such as reading, writing, and doing puzzles, lowered their risk of dementia by as much as 47 percent. Ballroom dancing, which combines thinking — remembering how to perform dance patterns — reduced the risk of developing dementia by an astonishing 67 percent.
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