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Do Brain Games Help Prevent Dementia?

Research looks at whether online puzzles and games improve cognitive function.

Key points

  • Researchers are studying whether online puzzles and games help improve symptoms for people with mild dementia.
  • Research offers mixed results on the effectiveness of brain games.
  • A new study suggests that crossword puzzles may help to slow the progress of mild dementia.

More than six million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and that number continues to grow significantly as the U.S. population ages.

Researchers across the globe are trying to find ways to protect aging brains from dementia. Over the past decade, they have zeroed in on “brain training” — puzzles and games designed to improve cognitive skills — as one possible solution.

“Brain training” would be an easy fix. It doesn’t have any side effects or require FDA approval. It’s something older adults can do without even leaving their homes. But does it work?

At the moment, the evidence is hopeful but inconclusive.

There are dozens of studies and systematic reviews on whether cognitive games help people with mild or moderate dementia slow the progress of the disease. One of the most recent and credible is a review published by the Cochrane Collaboration.

For their analysis, researchers combined the evidence from 33 studies with about 2,000 participants. They found that cognitive training — typically in the form of online computer games designed for older adults — may lead to some benefits in overall cognition compared to no treatment. They also found some improvements in verbal fluency. It appears these improvements can last for a few months or more. The review did not find that cognitive training was better than other active treatments for mild dementia. Researchers concluded this is an area that requires more extensive investigation.

As recently as last month, a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked into the topic. Researchers tested both computerized brain games and crossword puzzles to find out if they were effective in slowing the progression of mild cognitive impairment.

In the study, 107 older adults with mild cognitive impairment played games four times a week. One group used the cognitive training program Lumosity and the other group worked on a digital crossword puzzle. Researchers followed the participants for more than a year, assessing their cognitive and functional skills and measuring their brain volume with MRIs throughout the study.

Interestingly, the older adults who did the crossword puzzles regularly had significantly less cognitive decline, better functional skills and maintained more brain volume compared to those assigned to play the brain training game. Researchers did conclude that more research is needed to better understand why the crossword puzzles worked better.

What about other evidence-based interventions to prevent cognitive decline? The National Academy of Medicine has published a 162-page report written by a team of doctors, neurology experts and psychologists that details what we know about aging and cognition.

The report found that managing blood pressure and increasing physical activity levels are two important ways to prevent and manage cognitive decline. It also found, like other reviews, that the evidence for cognitive training is encouraging but inconclusive so far.

The take-home message: While there isn't firm evidence yet, brain training with things like computer games or crossword puzzles may help to prevent and slow the progression of cognitive decline. Managing blood pressure and staying physically active are also encouraging ways to prevent and manage dementia.

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