Don’t just rely on brain games to delay dementia

April 29, 2014 in Preventive Care  •  By Miles Varn

Brain games are getting a lot of publicity in the news. Major brain game programs, like Luminosity and Fit Brains by Rosetta Stone, provide daily exercises to members across the world. Luminosity itself boasts more than 50 million in 182 different countries. However, these brain game programs are not just about amusement. Many are bringing health benefits to the table, backed by scientific research in some cases. But what kinds of benefits do brain games really offer?

Sharpen cognitive skills with brain games
Experts from the Alzheimer’s Association of America estimate that between 10 and 20 percent of individuals ages 65 years and older live with mild cognitive impairment. This condition is characterized by difficulty recalling facts that were once easy to remember, such as appointments or conversation details, or impaired thinking and reasoning skills. While MCI is not a direct risk factor for dementia, those who have MCI are often diagnosed with some form of dementia later in life.

Given that there are few established treatments for these neurological conditions, which can negatively affect patients’ abilities to live independently, many individuals search for creative ways to improve brain health. According to The New York Timesthere is a growing market for games that are designed to sharpen the cognitive skills of users, who may range from children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder to adults trying to maintain good neurological health.

However, consumers should know that the science behind the marketing claims is far from clear. The Times pointed out that a series of recent studies evaluating the impact of such games on memory functions had mixed results.

“I’m not convinced there is a huge difference between buying a $300 subscription to a gaming company versus you yourself doing challenging things on your own, like attending a lecture or learning an instrument,” Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., director of the neurocognitive disorders program at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, told The Times. “Each person has to personalize for themselves what they find fun and challenging and what they can stick with.”

Beyond brain games
In the meantime, the Alzheimer’s Association noted that it is possible that mentally stimulating and social activities may help maintain neurological function, but they are not the only potential means of keeping the brain healthy as it ages. Many of the modifiable risk factors for dementia are similar to those of cardiovascular disease – which include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes – so addressing such variables may be helpful. The goal is to optimize the circulation of blood to keep the brain nourished. This may entail engaging in aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, jogging, dancing, bicycle riding, hiking and other activities. A diet that is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish and olive oil while low on red meat can also have a positive impact on brain health.

Professional health advisors can help people who are concerned about their brain health determine what activities might help them and provide answers to their questions. They can also recommend top specialists who can offer personalized care by taking into consideration a person’s past medical history and current health status. Brain games may offer some benefits, but playing them is only one part of an overall brain health regimen.