I recently did a search for “brain games” on my iPhone’s App Store just to see how popular the category would be. It returned 2,195 results.
I can’t say I was surprised. The interest in brain games has grown considerably over the last few years. What used to be a simple crossword puzzle in the Sunday newspaper as a hobby has matured into a market with dozens of companies vying for consumers’ dollars. There are slick TV advertising campaigns and even a conference on “neurogaming.”
I understand why people would be willing to spend hundreds of dollars to improve their memory and cognition. The brain needs to be regularly challenged in order to function at its best; I compare it to any other muscle in the body. For folks who feel mentally stuck in routine tasks (something to which we can all relate!), an interactive brain game is an easy, fun way to “exercise” this most important organ.
Except that the research is mixed on whether brain games really work. Last year, a University of Oslo researcher analyzed 23 studies on memory training, and concluded that while players did get better at the games, “there was no convincing evidence of the generalization of working memory training to other skills.” In other words, their so-called improved memory didn’t transfer to everyday life.
But this past January, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study found that brain training did help for older adults, and at least some of its effects were sustained for as long as 10 years. The study followed 2,832 volunteer participants with an average age of 74 years at the beginning of the study.
So what’s my take? Even though the scientific jury is still out on whether brain games truly work, I say you’re much better off spending your free time challenging your brain versus, say, surfing the Web or passively watching TV. (You could also take this time to do some aerobic exercise, which has been shown to improve brain health.)
Whether or not you want to pay for a brain game is a personal decision, of course. There are plenty of free or low-cost games available; the AARP is a great place to start and offers several games for free. I encourage you to take a look.
Mind your health,
Dr. Keith Black