DEAR CA & AC —
Brain exercises for memory loss, do they work? I know I’m losing my mind. Not dementia yet. But definitely the age-related thing. Misplacing keys. Forgetting names. Re-watching TV episodes without knowing how they turn out. Any quick fixes that actually work? I am so frustrated I would spend my life savings on a brain transplant if it were available.
SIGNED, FUZZY HEAD
DEAR FH —
Check out Luminosity. Its brain games were developed by neuroscientists at major research centers to improve problem solving, memory, mental flexibility and speed. I have tried them and found the experiencing mentally invigorating.
DEAR FH —
When it comes to matters of brain function, I hesitate to contradict the woman who figures our lunch tip in her head while I’m still rooting around in the bottom of my purse for a calculator. Nonetheless, I feel obliged to point out there is, as yet, no definitive evidence that mental exercises do anything except make people better at doing mental exercises. At least that’s what scientists who aren’t in the business of selling mental exercises say. (See links below.)
So far, many health professionals maintain the only kind of exercise that clearly improves the brain is physical exercise. Along with other health benefits, aerobic activities raise heart rates getting more oxygen-rich blood pumping through regions of the brain associated with memory and reasoning.
If physical exercise isn’t your cup of tea, you might think about taking up video games. Studies have shown that parents were right in thinking video games dull the brains of children. Now researchers at the University of California, San Francisco have found preliminary evidence that as little as a month of playing a video game in the laboratory translated into as much six months improvement in memory and alertness for middle-aged (60 to 65) subjects. The study, published in the British journal “Nature” in November 2014, is significant because it is the first concrete evidence that exercise can translate into real-life improvements in memory although scientists say more research is needed.
(A second response from CA)
Forgive me for prolonging this already over-long conversation, but my ever-affable friend has been suddenly and inexplicably overtaken by an excess of caution. (Excess, we often associate with her; caution, not so much.) While my default position is ordinarily one of sensibility, when it comes to improving one’s mind, I say throw caution to the wind and pursue anything that has promise, as long as it won’t break the bank or endanger your health.
Remember the clock is running. We don’t always have the luxury of waiting. Scientists are a long way from understanding what causes cancer or how to cure it, but how many doctors tell patients to hold off on treatment until all the answers are in? The scientific community will debate the efficacy of anti-aging interventions for a long while. In the meantime, l plan to keep doing mental push-ups.
(UPDATED RESPONSE from AC, Dec. 6, 2015)
As recently as April 2105, the Institute of Medicine (an arm of the National Academy of Sciences) cautioned consumers to beware of claims that products can “prevent, slow, or reverse the effects of cognitive aging.”
“The scientific literature on cognitive stimulation and cognitive training has shown that older adults can improve on trained abilities … However, studies examining whether cognitive stimulation and training could transfer to real-world activities and tasks have had mixed results. … [C]an a computer-based memory training program help people better remember their shopping list, medical and other appointments, and the names and faces of new acquaintances?”
Older adults lose an estimated $2.9 billion a year, directly and indirectly, to financial fraud, according to Institute of Medicine’s 2015 report on cognitive aging. How sad to think that some of it goes to companies claiming to help us keep our wits about us.
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