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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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