Many seniors struggle with some degree of memory loss, as well as other types of cognitive impairment. This can range from relatively mild, considered a normal part of the aging process, to quite severe, as in age-related neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy body dementia.
The older you get, the higher your risk of developing dementia and struggling with severe memory loss. Naturally, neuropsychiatric research has begun exploring potential avenues for preventing, delaying, or even reversing these deficits, to help maintain a better quality of life throughout old age.
One popular tool for sharpening mental skills, including working memory, are so-called “brain games” or “brain training games.” The best known publisher of these is Lumosity, but there are also other services out there offering similar services. Some are free, others charge a small subscription fee, or use a “freemium” model where basic membership is free, but further services are paid.
While they’re formatted a fun but challenging computer games, which you can play on a desktop, laptop, or mobile device, they’re designed with more than entertainment in mind. Lumosity and similar companies employ neuropsychiatric researchers to design the games around specific cognitive skills and modalities. There are games to help “train” working memory, mental math skills, verbal recall, multitasking, and more.
The companies that create and sell these products make a lot of claims. But can Lumosity and similar “brain training” game services actually help you stave off dementia and memory loss?
Regulatory Issues: Claims of Efficacy versus Actual Evidence
One issue you should probably know about is that Lumosity itself, in particular, has been the subject of regulatory scrutiny in the United States. The reason revolves around the kinds of claims these companies were previously making.
In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission sued several companies, including Lumosity, for deceptive advertising. The allegation was that these companies prey on consumers’ fears of age-related memory loss and cognitive decline, among other issues. The companies had made claims that their products could help treat common neuropsychiatric and neurological issues like ADHD, dementia, stroke and TBI sequelae, and Alzheimer’s — but without providing enough actual, peer-reviewed evidence to back up those claims.
Now, this does not mean that these services do not work. What it means is more that their efficacy has not yet been demonstrated in a way that’s acceptable to the scientific community. While they still hold promise, more research is needed.
Existing Research Does Show Promise
So what kind of research is currently out there? As of today, there is evidence showing that brain training games may actually help, at least for certain neurological conditions. Trials with patients who have had surgery for temporal lobe epilepsy — a type of seizure disorder localized in the temporal lobe of the brain — have shown promise. While the gains in memory were not universal, the games did help reduce depression in the patients, which itself can benefit brain function and memory.
Research on using the games to improve fluid intelligence in neurotypical people — that is, loosely speaking, helping “make you smarter” — did not show noticeable effects.
However, other studies, including one from Northwestern University, have shown that the games can help produce limited improvements in specific modalities. The games are designed around a specific neurocognitive task, and can help you improve that specific task. However, it’s unclear how well this generalizes to other related tasks.
The Bottom Line: It Can’t Hurt to Try!
While research is still ongoing, the jury’s out on how effective brain training games, like those offered by Lumosity and similar companies, actually are at improving cognitive function — whether to help counteract an existing deficit, or to help stave off age related memory loss and dementia.
But with that said, no one quite knows for sure yet. At the very least, it can’t hurt, and many researchers are still hopeful that these kinds of special activities really can have benefits for users as they age. So give it a try — if nothing else, it can’t hurt!