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Brain Games: Their Value in Combating Dementia


Submitted by Cut the Clutter Company, LLC™ and Aging in Place With Grace

All over the world, researchers are valiantly hunting for the keys that will unlock the mystery of Alzheimer’s disease. Much of the focus is identifying what and how it can be prevented, or at least minimized. Preliminary findings from a study aimed at reducing the risk were presented July 24, 2016, at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Toronto, and they are highly intriguing and worth taking a serious look at.

One of the hallmarks in identifying this disease at its onset is mild cognitive impairment or decline. Cognition is the term used for one’s ability to think or process information or to commit things to memory. Just as exercising our bodies keeps us healthy, it stands to reason that maybe exercising our mind (i.e. brain games) could also have a positive effect, however little evidence has been accumulated to prove this. In fact, in January of this year the Federal Trade Commission fined Lumosity, one the largest and best-known sources for online brain games, two million dollars for making what the commission considered to be unsubstantiated claims of cognitive improvement.

A profusion of studies have taken place over the years to investigate if cognition can truly be maintained or improved by performing mental “exercises” or using our thought processes to ward off brain decline. A clinical trial known as Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, or “ACTIVE,” was conducted in 1998 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The purpose was to scrutinize the effects of training programs that target the cognition abilities of the brain.

Over 2,700 healthy adults, whose average age was around 74, were divided into three groups. Two groups received ten one-hour sessions over a period of five weeks where one group targeted memory improvement and the other, reasoning. The third group was given computerized-aided “speed training,” or as the study calls it “speed-of-processing.”
In a simplistic, but highly accurate description, Dan Hurley of The New Yorker Magazine gives this explanation of speed-of-processing training:

“Imagine that you are looking at a computer screen. For the briefest instant, two images appear — one in the middle, one on the periphery.

Then the computer prompts you to identify them. Was the central image a tiny car or a little truck? Where along the edge did the second image appear? The more accurate you get, the more fleetingly the pictures appear, the more similar the car and truck get, and the more distracting the background becomes. That is speed-of-processing training. It is always one step ahead of you, yet virtually everyone gets faster and more accurate with practice.”

As part of the ACTIVE trial protocol, researchers measured cognitive and other changes immediately and at one, two, three, five and 10 years after the training to see if, in any way, it affected how participants performed daily tasks. In addition, some participants received four additional “booster” sessions one year after the original training, and four more two years after that.

The ACTIVE report has been scrutinized by over fifty peer-reviewed scientific papers, and there was little evidence that such a trial prevented dementia. That is until now.

A new investigation looked at participants well beyond 10 years after the end of the ACTIVE study and the outcomes were by research leader Dr. Jerri Edwards, an Associate Professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida:

  • 14 percent of ACTIVE participants who received no training had dementia 10 years later
  • 12.1 percent of those who completed up to 10 60-to-75-minute sessions of computer-based training in speed-of-processing developed dementia
  • But only 8.2 percent of those who completed all 10 initial training sessions, plus four booster sessions a few years later, developed dementia

It is not surprising that these results should be viewed with caution. Heather Snyder, the Senior Director of Medical and Scientific Operations at the Alzheimer’s Association has commented, “It is one study. We need to see it confirmed and replicated in a larger and more diverse population.” Susanne Jaeggi, the director of the Working Memory and Plasticity Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine, commented that she “found it difficult” to understand how a dozen or so hours of playing a game on the computer could translate into a lasting impact on the brain. “If you stop doing it after ten or even fourteen sessions, how on earth can you continue to have these effects ten years later?” she asked. All very valid questions and concerns.

Admittedly this one study is not enough to rock the world of Alzheimer’s, but it is incredibly important in that it provides a slice of possibilities for a disease that, at times, can seem hopeless. Will it prevent dementia from happening? Slow it? Control it? No one knows — yet. So play on! Whether on your mobile phone, tablet or PC, there is now some promising rationalization for playing “brain games!” 

Dr. Jill M. Bjerke (silverspacesblog.com) is CEO of Cut the Clutter, Co., LLC (cuthteclutterco.com) and creator of the home assessment app Silver Spaces (silverspaces.com). You can contact her at 564-449-2855.

Hurley, Dan. “Could Brain Training Prevent Dementia? New Yorker. 24 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/could-brain-training-prevent-dementia

Begly, Sharon. “Play On! In a First, Brain Training Cuts Risk of Dementia 10 Years Later. Stat: Reporting from the Frontiers of Health and Medicine.. 24 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016.