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Alzheimer’s Disease: too serious to play with headlines

Featured Website, Scientific American Mind, June/July 2007

We just came across an article titled Best Computer Brain Games for Senior Citizens to Delay Alzheimer’s Disease. The headline makes little scientific sense-and we observe this confusion often. The article mentions a few programs we have discussed often in this blog, such as Posit Science and MindFit, and others we haven’t because we haven’t found any published science behind, such as Dakim and MyBrainTrainer. And there are more programs: what about Happy Neuron, Lumosity, Spry Learning and Captain’s Log. Not to talk about Nintendo Brain Age, of course.

Some of those programs have real science that, at best, shows how some specific cognitive skills (like memory, or attention, or processing) can be trained and improved-no matter the age. This is a very important message that hasn’t yet percolated through many brains out there: we know today that computer-based software programs can be very useful to train some cognitive skills, better than alternative methods (paper and pencil, classroom-based, just “daily living”).

Now, no single program can make ANY claim that it specifically delays/ prevents Alzheimer’s Disease beyond general statements such as that Learning Slows Physical Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease (hence the imperative for lifelong learning) and that mental stimulation-together with other lifestyle factors such as nutrition, physical exercise and stress management, as outlined in these Steps to Improve Your Brain Health– may contribute to build a Cognitive Reserve that may reduce the probability of problems. Programs may be able to delay the appearance of some symptoms, but we don’t know yet how to delay the disease. And there is no evidence that one particular program is better than another for that purpose of delaying the disease. Or better than learning Chinese, or playing the violin, for that matter. You can can read more at our previous post on Does a brain fitness program prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia?

Given this context, and the importance of the topic, we are happy to see the birth of the Healthy Brain Initiative by CDC and Alzheimer’s Association. We are sure that research will start to accumulate and guide efforts to delay dementias. For the time being, in our view, we should view brain fitness programs as useful tools to train and develop specific skills, whether it is auditory processing in the case of Posit Science, a variety of them at MindFit, working memory at Cogmed, peripheral vision and others through Intelligym. We can improve our quality of life, productivity and mental faculties. All these tools probably help to reduce the probability of developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias (so I personally make sure to learn new things and skills as often as I can, and using these tools is part of that), but that shouldn’t be the main reason why people use them since it is an indirect relationship at this point.

For more information, the National Institute on Aging provides a great article on Can Alzheimer’s Disease be Prevented?. And you can always consult our checklists on How to Select the Right Brain Fitness Program (short version and full one) for guidance, or review the post MindFit and Posit Science in the Wall Street Journal’s “Putting Brain Exercises to the Test”.

In short: long live lifelong learning and neuroplasticity! long live good lifestyle habits! just take Alzheimer’s-related claims with a whole shaker of salt.

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