Can Brain-training Games Really Reduce Dementia Risk For Seniors?

A brain-training video game could help lower the risk of developing dementia in seniors by almost a third, the results of a decade-long study suggest.

More than 2,800 people took part in the randomized clinical trial study. The exercises challenge a person’s ability to look at an object in the center of the screen, like a tree, and then click on an object that pops up in the periphery, like a flower.

As the user improves, exercises move faster and become more difficult. The concept aims to exercise the brain’s ability to change, or neuroplasticity, and to test perceptual, decision-making, thinking and remembering skills.

The study authors describe the process as similar to learning how to ride a bike, a skill that doesn’t take long to learn but which drives a long-lasting brain change.

Not A Magic Bullet

Experts in the field sounded a note of skepticism about interpreting the current study as a panacea for dementia – many previous studies have found little to no benefit in popular online brain-training courses.

“The results reported here, of apparent reduction in risk of dementia after 10 years following only a few hours of cognitive training, are therefore rather surprising and should be treated with caution. I find it implausible that such a brief intervention could have this effect,”

said Rob Howard, professor of old age psychiatry at University College London.

Doug Brown, director of research at Alzheimer’s Society, said the study is positive in that it spanned a decade and compared several kinds of brain training. But it made conclusions about dementia in patients based on self-reports or from subjects’ families, not clinical diagnoses of the condition.

Advanced Cognitive Training in Vital Elderly

The Advanced Cognitive Training in Vital Elderly study (ACTIVE) enrolled participants with an average age of 74. Participants in the trial were assigned at random to four groups: one did computer exercises, a second one followed a series of traditional memory exercises, another did reasoning exercises, and the fourth, a control group, did nothing at all.

“Speed of processing training resulted in decreased risk of dementia across the 10-year period of, on average, 29 percent as compared to the control,”

said lead author Jerri Edwards, a researcher at the University of South Florida. There was no significant difference in risk of dementia for the strategy-based memory or reasoning training groups.

The ACTIVE study was supported by funding from the National Institute of Nursing Research, the National Institute on Aging, the Indiana Alzheimer Disease Center, and the Cognitive and Aerobic Resilience for the Brain Trial.

Although a randomised controlled trial is the best way of testing an intervention like this, and it is a good idea to look at how people are at a later date, the initial study was not specifically designed to look at development of dementia.

Also, it didn’t look at validated clinical diagnoses of dementia. Some cases were assumed to be dementia based on below-average cognitive test scores, and others by the participants or their families telling the researchers that a diagnosis had been received.

Evidence Not Convincing

Overall, the findings are not that convincing. There was a suggestion that people who had done a speed-based training game were less likely than the control group to have dementia, but this was right on the threshold of statistical significance, meaning we can’t be sure of the finding.

Media coverage has been overly optimistic in most cases, to put it charitably.

A 2016 review, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, concluded:

“We find extensive evidence that brain-training interventions improve performance on the trained tasks, less evidence that such interventions improve performance on closely related tasks, and little evidence that training enhances performance on distantly related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance.”

From what we know about dementia, it would appear you should first focus on your heart health, then worry about your brain. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, quitting smoking if you smoke, maintaining a healthy weight, and drinking alcohol in moderation, may all help reduce your risk of dementia, as well as many other chronic diseases.

Edwards, Jerri D. et al.
Speed of processing training results in lower risk of dementia
Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.trci.2017.09.002

Image: Mark Bonica/Flickr

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