Brain games: Can they improve memory and cognition? (Part 1)

Brain games: Can they improve memory and cognition? (Part 1)

New evidence suggests there is hope amid the hype, and that brain fitness programs should be part of every facility or community intent on supporting older-adult wellness
by Marilynn Larkin, MA


By all accounts, the time is ripe for interventions to improve brain health. Nearly nine out of 10 people think it is possible to improve brain fitness, according to the 2006 American Society on Aging-MetLife Foundation’s Attitudes and Awareness of Brain Health Poll, which aimed to “take the pulse of the [US] public” with regard to brain health. Fifty-three percent of respondents to the poll believed brain health could improve “a lot,” while 35% believed it could improve “a little.”1


“Brain games are a great marketing tool because Boomers, in particular, are so concerned about how they will maintain cognition,” says Nancy Ceridwyn, MS, MEd, director of special projects for the American Society on Aging (ASA) in San Francisco. “That means it’s a prime time for anyone in the brain fitness industry,” adds Ceridwyn, who heads ASA’s MindAlert program. MindAlert, which is funded by MetLife Foundation, commissioned the brain health poll, and also presents awards to nonprofit organizations that create innovative programs for cognitive health.


Recent brain research supports the public’s optimism, Ceridwyn observes. Members of the expert panel that developed the brain health poll emphasized that “with good care, a normal brain can stay healthy and active just as long as the rest of the body.” In addition, they reported the discovery of two keys to brain capacity:

  • neuroplasticity, or the capacity of the brain to change in response to stimulation; and
  • neurogenesis, the addition of new brain cells that can expand function or restore abilities diminished by disease and disuse.


These vital brain functions can be activated by enriched environments that include opportunities for socialization, mental stimulation and physical activity.2


The experts also concluded that “crosstraining for the brain should be routine.” Reading or doing crossword puzzles, while good activities, are beneficial only in the context of a comprehensive program for brain health that involves activities differing in frequency, intensity and variety. The results of such comprehensive programs can last for up to five years, as demonstrated in a recently published study of memory-training interventions among people with normal, age-related cognitive changes.3


Importantly, the expert panel stated that “mental fitness activities belong in every type of senior housing. On-site resources and programs should be titrated [adjusted to achieve the desired effect] to match the range of settings and populations, which may extend from complete independence to maximum support with activities of daily living.”


Should active aging professionals invest in brain fitness programs for their facilities or communities? And, if so, what do they need to know to make the right choices among the burgeoning array of programs on the market? Experts who have used and/or reviewed these programs, as well as brain fitness program developers, weigh in below to assist in decision-making.


Why brain games?
Brain fitness programs are especially appropriate for active adult communities, according to Robin Lea West, PhD, professor and director of the Everyday Memory Clinic at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “People should start playing these games at age 50, because research shows the younger you are, the more you benefit. If you want to develop skills to be a better thinker when you’re older, then start younger,” advises West, whose Memory Action Program (MAP) is a MindAlert award-winner. Although the MAP memory-training program works with people ages 50–90 and beyond, “the sooner you start, the more time you have to devote to the training, and the more you gain from it,” she stresses. MAP teaches participants how to develop strategies to improve everyday memory performance and to enhance confidence in their ability toremember.


Michael M. Merzenich, PhD, the Francis A. Sooy Professor at the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco, explains that “when you’re young, you’re continuously learning. But at some point in life, you become primarily a user of mastered skills and abilities, and you’re no longer engaging the brain for much of the day in acquiring new abilities. Most of what you do is in domains that are familiar to you,” observes Merzenich, “and you apply skills unthinkingly.” As you get older, he adds, “you seek to simplify; you look for a path that’s not stressful and so you basically disengage from life.”


Even older adults who believe remaining active is the key to successful aging are mistaken if what they really mean is that they’ll simply continue doing things they’re already good at, Merzenich says. “The cortex is constructed to change, and the machinery that supports that change is plastic,” he states. “If it’s not exercised, it slowly dies off, and its death contributes to end-of-life catastrophes such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Thus, a failure to challenge yourself with new learning is a contributing cause to end-of-life decline, Merzenich asserts. “There’s a direct relationship between how much and how effectively the brain is engaged and how well it functions,” he says. “If we can take people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, for example, and drive them up to an operational ability that carries them out of that diagnosis, then we can substantially improve their lives in a protective way.” That’s one of the aims of the Brain Fitness Program developed by Posit Science. Merzenich, who is chief scientific officer of the San Francisco-based company, worked with dozens of neuroscientists to develop this program.


This article is provided courtesy of the International Council on Active Aging