We listen to a lot of public radio in my house. Shows like Radiolab and This American Life make chores go faster and often lead to great conversations. But I bristle every time I hear another sponsorship slogan by a certain program underwriter. It goes something like this: “Lumosity, the brain training program to improve memory and performance, for life.”
Every time I hear it, I think of my dad’s experience. My father moved back to his childhood hometown when he was in his seventies. He was delighted to run across lots of people he’d known decades earlier. They recognized him, asked about his family, reminisced about his mother (who’d been a popular high school teacher), and shared stories of their own lives. It was an absolute thrill for him. He felt rooted, more truly at home than he’d felt for years. “Who you are,” he told me, “is all in what you remember.”
The most gut-wrenching part of moving back, for my dad, was meeting up with his old friend Mitchell.* Our language doesn’t yet have a word for the moment when any of us meets up with someone we’ve known for years, only to realize the other person is suffering from dementia.
Developing dementia of any sort was my father’s worst nightmare. He read every article on prevention and subscribed to various journals so he could keep up with the latest Alzheimer’s disease research. He modified his already stringent diet and intensified his rigorous memory preservation efforts; influenced, in part, by advertisements for “brain training” businesses that relentlessly targeted his age group.
He’d recently and very happily remarried, sang in the church choir, went on bike rides, was an enthusiastic bird watcher and gardener. But he’d turn down going to lunch with friends and skip interesting programs at the senior center because he prioritized brain training. He memorized sequential pictures and lists of words, did math problems and crossword puzzles, and clicked through brain training programs for hours every day. He couldn’t have known that his active life would suddenly be cut short by an aneurysm. I’m still saddened by the time he spent indoors hunched over a computer screen instead of letting himself more fully engage in life’s pleasures.
Here’s what’s particularly galling. Experts tell us that more frequent social activities (like the ones my dad kept skipping) offer a protective effect. Studies show that a larger network of regular social contacts is associated with better semantic and working memory well into old age.
Do brain training programs offer similar protective effects? Not really.
As the population ages, more and more people are trying to ward off cognitive decline by using brain games like Brain HQ, Dakim Brain Fitness, My Brain Trainer, and of course, Lumosity. (Over 70 million people use Lumosity, many paying $15 a month.) Customers are assured that such programs will improve memory and thinking skills. They’re told these games are backed by scientific evidence. In fact, Lumosity‘s site lists a number of studies.
Those studies, however, may only tangentially relate to the product or cannot be replicated by more exacting researchers. Some are conducted by those who have a financial link to brain training companies. And here’s the thing: Improvements in game scores don’t really translate into better cognitive functioning in daily life, especially long-term, even though that’s what motivates people to play in the first place.
A few years ago, the Alzheimer’s Society teamed up with BBC to launch a Brain Test Britain study. Over 13,000 people participated. The results weren’t promising. People under 60 got better at the individual games, but their overall mental fitness didn’t improve. An expanded study to test those over 60 is still being analyzed, but it doesn’t sound like breaking news either.
Sure, players will improve their scores on games they enjoy, but if time spent playing subtracts from other more beneficial activities, it’s time squandered. There’s also worry that when brain training customers believe these games protect them from dementia, they may be less likely to eat right, get enough exercise, and pay attention to other means of prevention.
Scientists are speaking up about this. A joint statement titled “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community” was released last year by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The 70 scientists who participated summed it up this way,
We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline.
All of us are used to companies stretching the truth in order to get more customers. But we live at a time when one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. It’s estimated that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease will triple in the next 40 years. It’s particularly heinous when companies exploit those very real fears. When trusted news outlets accept money from these companies, that’s when I turn off the radio.
*Name changed to protect identity.