Can Computer Games Really Prevent Dementia?

Older couple using laptop computer outside
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As the population grows older, there's a surging interest in keeping the brain healthy and active. Computerized brain "workouts" like Lumosity, Cognifit, Fit Brains, and HappyNeuron are helping to feed a growing industry.

Are these computerized brain exercises worth it? Or are the companies just investing in a more cynical kind of "mind game" by taking advantage of people's fear of dementia as they get older?

Certainly there is research that demonstrates cognitive improvement as a result of some of these computer exercises. Much of this research has been done in patients with traumatic brain injury (TBI) or stroke, in which some degree of cognitive recovery is expected. The story may be different in a progressive neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer's disease.  In these diseases, rather than a sudden injury, the disease is constantly worsening.  

It's also important to know exactly what these studies measured. The scores on these games do tend to improve with time. What is less clear, however, is if the results transfer over into the rest of life. Are we helping the brain stay healthy in everyday life, or are we just training brains to be good at computer games?

Some studies do show improvement away from the computer monitor a well. One study, the Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training (IMPACT) study, suggested that people who used their computer system had faster responses than those who just watched educational DVDs.

However, as this study was funded by the same corporation that makes money off these kinds of computer programs, some skepticism is called for.

It's also frequently unclear how these computer games may compare to other activities. How would these games compare to crossword puzzles or Sudoku? There's a fair amount of evidence that staying active reduces the risk of cognitive impairment.

 The specific type of cognitive activity, though, may not matter. 

A panel of experts from the National Institute on Aging has stated that there wasn't enough high-quality data to conclude that computerized training programs help improve the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Maybe the most important thing is to ensure that what you do is enjoyable enough that you continue to do it regularly. It's probably also important to push yourself cognitively a bit beyond your comfort level, much like it's good to get your heart rate up a bit when exercising.

If you're thinking of purchasing a brain-training computer program, it may be helpful to ask some questions first. Some of those questions could include the following:

  1. Has the research on the product been done with university researchers, or are all researchers just paid by the company?

  2. Have clinical trials been done comparing the program to other activities?

  3. Do the results transfer over to the real world, or just the computer?

  4. Has the program been studied in people with your specific problem?

  1. Has the program been studied in people your age, ethnicity, and gender?

It may be too early to say with great confidence that these games are helpful in dementia, though there's certainly a lot of speculation and testimonials to that effect. People should stay mentally, socially, and physically active as we get older.  Part of staying mentally active as we get older is thinking critically about new products being advertised to you.

Sources:

Balleteros S, Prieto A, Mayas J, Toril P, Pita C, Ponce de Leon L, Reales J, Waterworth J, Brain training with non action video games enhances aspects of cognition in older adults: a randomized controlled trial Front Aging Neurosci 2014, 6, 277.

Daviglus ML, Plassman BL, Pirzada A, Bell CC, Bowen PE, Burke JR, Connolly ES Jr, Dunbar-Jacob JM, Granieri EC, McGarry K, Patel D, Trevisan M, Williams JW Jr. Risk factors and preventive interventions for Alzheimer disease: state of the science. Arch Neurol. 2011 Sep;68(9):1185-90. Epub 2011 May 9. Review

Glenn E. Smith PhD, Patricia Housen PhD, Kristine Yaffe MD,Ronald Ruff PhD, Robert F. Kennison PhD,Henry W. Mahncke PhD,Elizabeth M. Zelinski PhD. A Cognitive Training Program Based on Principles of Brain Plasticity: Results from the Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training (IMPACT) Study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Volume 57, Issue 4, pages 594–603, April 2009.

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