Computer games are being touted as a way to keep the body fit. Can they do the same for your brain? Although that’s the promise behind commercially available computerized brain-training programs, most experts say “Not so fast.” As described in Improving Memory: Understanding age-related memory loss, a new Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, people who play these games might get better at the tasks they practice while playing, but the games don’t seem to improve users’ overall brain skills, such as attention, memory, use of language, and ability to navigate.
A 2010 study published in the journal Nature included 11,430 men and women between the ages of 18 and 60 who were randomly assigned to one of three online brain exercise programs. One focused on reasoning, planning, and problem solving. Another focused on broader tasks of memory, attention, mathematics, and other skills. The third (the control) involved searching online for answers to obscure questions. After six weeks, people in the first and second groups boosted their scores on their assigned brain-training exercises. But they showed no improvement (compared with the control group) when they repeated several general memory and thinking skills testing that had been done at the start.
An earlier study, sponsored by Posit Science, the company that created the popular Brain Fitness Program, used standard memory tests to assess 487 people over age 65. Half were then assigned to complete the program’s 40 hour-long sessions. The other half—the control group—watched educational DVDs and were quizzed on the material. The software users boosted their memory and attention scores more than the control group. But self-reported improvement in everyday situations was fairly similar: 48% for the Brain Fitness group versus 40% for the controls.
There are no studies comparing one commercially available program to another or to mind-stimulating hobbies. Other factors that make it tricky to assess the worth of brain-building computer programs are the potential effect of programs that become more challenging as the player becomes more successful; the effect of competitive features in a program; and the player’s desire to get his or her money’s worth from buying the software, some of which costs nearly $400.
So far, it looks like simply playing games that require concentration won’t help you remember important names, faces, and appointments. What can work are practical tools designed to address specific problems encountered in daily life. You can learn some memory-training techniques in the free excerpt of Improving Memory.
To stay sharp, your mind needs regular workouts in creative thinking, problem solving, and intellectual focus. To stretch and exercise your brain, choose an activity you enjoy—reading, playing cards, or doing crossword puzzles are some good examples. If you’re feeling ambitious, try learning to speak a new language or play a musical instrument. Most of these activities come at a much lower cost than brain-training programs, and you’ll probably find them to be a lot more enjoyable, too.