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Top 10 Brain Training Trends — Putting our Cognitive Reserve to Work

Yes­ter­day I had the chance to chat with Yaakov Stern, lead­ing Cog­ni­tive Reserve researcher at Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity, and then with a group of 25 life­long learn­ers in Ari­zona who attended a brain fit­ness class (hello, Robert and friends!) based on our con­sumer guide The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness. On reflec­tion, I found both con­ver­sa­tions to be very stim­u­lat­ing for the same rea­son: they were forward-looking, focused not so much on sta­tus quo but on how emerg­ing research, tech­nol­ogy and trends may impact our soci­ety and lives in years to come. Let’s con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tion. Let me share the 10 main trends that we analyzed/ fore­casted in our book, and then ask you, sharp read­ers, to add your own 2 cents to the discussion.

1. We pre­dict an increased empha­sis on brain main­te­nance in loca­tions rang­ing from retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties to gyms. As a computer-savvy baby boomer pop­u­la­tion looks for ways to stay men­tally fit, brain fit­ness, or brain train­ing, is becom­ing part of their vocab­u­lary and concern.

2. Phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise will be bet­ter inte­grated. Phys­i­cal exer­cise has been shown to increase the rate of neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis, whereas men­tal exer­cise helps ensure the sur­vival of any newly cre­ated neu­rons. Today both activ­i­ties usu­ally take place in very dif­fer­ent set­tings: the for­mer, in health clubs, the later, in uni­ver­si­ties. We pre­dict that the bor­ders between them will become more dif­fuse. Expect new pro­grams such as brain fit­ness pod­casts that allow us to train work­ing mem­ory as we jog or exer­cise bikes with built-in brain games.

3. Watch for a broad gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tive, sim­i­lar to the one JFK led, to increase the pub­lic aware­ness of the need for brain fit­ness. It is becom­ing more widely under­stood by the med­ical and pol­icy com­mu­nity that a com­bi­na­tion of phys­i­cal exer­cise, nutri­tion, men­tal exer­cise and stress man­age­ment can help us main­tain our brain health as we age. As politi­cians and pol­icy mak­ers look for ways to delay the onset of Alzheimer-related symp­toms of our aging pop­u­la­tion, new ini­tia­tives may be launched.

4. Bet­ter and more widely avail­able assess­ments of cog­ni­tive func­tion will serve as objec­tive base­lines to mea­sure the impact of cog­ni­tive train­ing inter­ven­tions. There will also likely be bet­ter diag­nos­tic tests to iden­tify early Alzheimer’s symp­toms, for exam­ple. Reli­able diag­nos­tic assess­ments of cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties will help move this field for­ward just as jump­ing on a scale tells you if your phys­i­cal fit­ness and diet pro­gram is working.

5. Improved computer-based tools will come to mar­ket. The grow­ing pipeline of research stud­ies will enable the mar­ket lead­ers and new entrants to refine exist­ing tools and devise new ones. More clin­i­cal stud­ies will show the ben­e­fits of brain fit­ness pro­grams to address spe­cific clin­i­cal con­di­tions and learn­ing disabilities.

6. Low tech options will play an increas­ing role in the brain fit­ness field. Already, increas­ing research is show­ing the cog­ni­tive value and brain plas­tic­ity impact of inter­ven­tions such as med­i­ta­tion and cog­ni­tive ther­apy. More research and wider appli­ca­tions will help refine our under­stand­ing of when and how they can be most helpful.

7. Doc­tors and phar­ma­cists will help patients nav­i­gate through the over­whelm­ing range of avail­able prod­ucts and inter­pret the results of cog­ni­tive assess­ments. This will require sig­nif­i­cant pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment efforts, given that most doc­tors today were trained under a very dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing of the brain than the one we have today.

8. Insur­ance com­pa­nies will intro­duce incen­tives for mem­bers to encour­age healthy aging. Many insur­ance plans today include rewards for mem­bers who, for exam­ple, vol­un­tar­ily take health-related ques­tion­naires that enable them to iden­tify steps to take to improve health. Increas­ingly, brain-related lifestyle fac­tors will become part of these incen­tivized interventions.

9. Invest­ments in new cog­ni­tive inter­ven­tions for the U.S. mil­i­tary will be com­mer­cial­ized. As the mil­i­tary increas­ingly funds research to improve the diag­nos­tic and treat­ment of prob­lems such as PTSD and TBI, the result­ing prod­ucts will ulti­mately find com­mer­cial uses.

10. Brain train­ing will be added to cor­po­rate well­ness and lead­er­ship ini­tia­tives. Large employ­ers with exist­ing cor­po­rate well­ness and lead­er­ship pro­grams will intro­duce brain fit­ness spe­cific pro­grams aimed not only at improved health out­comes but also at increased pro­duc­tiv­ity and cog­ni­tive per­for­mance in the workplace..

Which pre­dic­tion sounds more sur­pris­ing? which one would you add? how could we refine them?

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