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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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