Do mind games actually improve cognitive function?

Brain Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Apr 28, 2016

If you are misplacing your keys or forgetting items at the grocery store, you may be looking at ways to train your brain. With the growing prevalence of dementia and other cognitive diseases, many people are looking for prevention methods, as they see their loved ones suffer.

Unfortunately, solving cognitive decline isn’t as easy as sitting on the couch at night, playing a mind game on your electronic device.

In fact, NBC recently reported the brain-training company Lumosity will pay $2 million to settle charges, due to deceptive marketing that led users to believe the games could improve mental performance and put off age-related cognitive decline. There was simply no science to back up the advertising. The San Francisco-based company has over 70 million registered users worldwide with more than 3 billion games played. They continue to stand behind their products, but will discontinue their marketing language moving forward.

“We really don’t know as far as scientific evidence if brain games prevent cognitive decline,” said Claudia R. Padilla, MD, the medical director for research at the Baylor AT&T Memory Center. “Although doing something mentally challenging is important, we don’t know about the long term benefits of training your brain through these games.”

Dr. Padilla is actively involved with scientific studies and specializes in early-onset cognitive diseases. She helps many understand dementia and Alzheimer’s and find appropriate diagnosis, treatment and therapy.

So do mind games actually improve cognitive function? The short answer is that we just don’t know yet, but they certainly can’t hurt if you enjoy playing them.

Many people are trying to better understand dementia and Alzheimer’s and the research community is making concentrated efforts as well. There has been some stir about brain games specifically, as Scientific American said more than 50 studies have examined the benefits of brain training, but only a handful have tested whether or not the benefits translate to real life.

Protective Factors

If you’re looking for real results to improve your brain function and help prevent cognitive decline, Dr. Padilla suggests staying physically, mentally and socially active.

Exercise, specifically cardiovascular exercise, has been shown to benefit both your brain and your heart and reduce vascular diseases. Dr. Padilla also recommends a Mediterranean diet which includes plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grain, legumes, nuts, fish, poultry, limiting red meat and cooking with olive oil. Studies have proven the Mediterranean diet to be a protective factor against cognitive decline. This research is based on the low prevalence of disease in Europeans, and it is one of the main recommendations for brain health.

As far as staying mentally fit, if you enjoy playing brain games there could be little harm in doing so.

“The main idea is to stay stimulated,” Dr. Padilla said. “You can stimulate your brain in a number of ways, but doing something mentally challenging is important.”

Other ideas include learning a second language, developing a new skill like juggling or keeping your mind sharp after retirement.

There has also been evidence that staying socially engaged can have a positive impact on the brain, and Dr. Padilla said some retirement communities have implemented recreational activities to help. Those who participated in gardening or other social events could see a huge difference in mood.

For those who suffer from Alzheimer’s it is often a social trigger of music or a familiar face that will bring back positive memories, known as reminiscence therapy.

Despite progress in understanding protective factors, there is still room to better understand how mind games come into play. There are still questions surrounding the brain game movement. It is yet to be studied if a specific mind game will translate to a specific area of your brain, and just what you can expect from utilizing their methods.

If you’re determined to help prevent cognitive decline, it is just as important to know 10 early signs and symptoms to look for from the Alzheimer’s Association. You can also read more about understanding dementia or see how to better deal with the disease moving forward.

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