Kelly J. Murphy, Ph.D., C.Psych.

Kelly J. Murphy Ph.D., C.Psych.

Living With Mild Cognitive Impairment

Use It or Lose It

What the brain game industry really offers

Posted Nov 25, 2014

In our book ‘Living with Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Guide to Maximizing Brain Health and Reducing Risk of Dementia’ and in a recent blog posting, the benefits of cognitive engagement for optimizing memory have been emphasized. In short, participating in mentally engaging activities, of which brain games could be considered an example, are advised as a brain healthy lifestyle choice. This advice is based on research showing that older adults who report regular participation in thinking activities requiring active learning, problem solving, and decision making, often do better on tests of learning and memory as compared to peers who are less engaged in cognitively stimulating past-times. It is also based on research indicating a long-term effect of a cognitively engaged lifestyle is a lower chance of developing dementia.

The notion of ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to cognitive capacity is related in part to this association between a cognitively engaging lifestyle and preserved / enhanced thinking ability. It does not mean that ‘normal’ age-related cognitive decline (e.g., small decline in response speed, novel problem solving, and memory) occurs because we didn’t, or don’t, use our minds enough as older adults. Nor does it mean that those who develop neurodegenerative diseases didn’t use their minds enough. Rather it refers to this notion of cognitive reserve, whereby engaging in active thinking / learning serves to build and strengthen connections between brain cells that may contribute to the resiliency of the brain to withstand the influences of aging and neurological damage on cognitive capacity.

So what are some examples of cognitively stimulating activities? Well, it could be games like playing chess or bridge, creating something (painting, gardening, quilting, wood-working), engaging in lively discussions with peers, doing crosswords or solving puzzles like Sudoku, learning how to play a musical instrument or new musical piece, and learning a language. Important features of the activity are it should be enjoyable so you want to do it, and challenging so it gives you a bit of a mental work-out. It is clear from these examples that one does not have to buy computerized brain games to participate in cognitively engaging activities. Nonetheless, if engaging in a ‘mental workout’ so to speak is potentially helpful in maintaining our thinking skills, do computerized brain games have something to offer? Even if there is no substantive proof that they work?

Whether or not you purchase computerized brain game products, utilize non-computerized based options, or both is based on personal preference and economics. Many of the cognitively engaging examples previously provided could be participated in for free. Further, let’s not forget that being involved in regular physical exercise and social activities have been similarly associated with benefits to brain health. Although there are guidelines for older adults around the amount and intensity of recommended physical activity; less is known about the how much time should be spent doing a mental workout. Future research will address the latter question and also help guide consumers about what brain games might be beneficial. It is important to have a healthy skepticism of any claims made by brain game manufacturers. Just like there is no cure all nutrient or medication, there is also no wonder brain game to prevent cognitive decline. What the brain game industry has to offer is a potentially fun platform within which to pursue a cognitively engaging past-time. In other words, brain games are an option that should not preclude participation in other meaningful and enjoyable cognitive activities. The best advice is to continue to explore information and opportunities to do things that work for your lifestyle to promote your physical and mental health.