Can brain training programs actually improve memory?

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Q. I have been seeing a lot about brain training programs to improve memory. Do they really work?

A. Brain training programs promise to preserve cognitive abilities, but so far research has not found they can delay or prevent brain decline.

These programs operate on the premise that practicing one cognitive task will translate into better memory and intelligence. The enthusiasm for them began when observational studies noted a link between engagement in cognitive activities, like reading and doing crossword puzzles, and a lower risk for dementia. The assumption was that the more you engage your brain, the less likely its abilities would deteriorate. However, these studies often focused on people with higher education and healthier habits who are statistically at a lower risk for dementia.

Even so, many companies developed training programs, often claiming their products are "scientifically proven" and "clinically tested," but any cited research is often flawed. For instance, the studies often lack an appropriate comparison group or sufficient follow-up to measure possible cognitive decline. Even the largest and longest of these studies combine cognitive training with exercise and diet, which makes it hard to determine the true contribution of the brain exercises. Better studies are needed before these programs can be viewed as having any true benefits.

— by William Kormos, M.D.
Editor in Chief, Harvard Men's Health Watch