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Just Curious

Do Brain Fitness Games Really Work?

By Greg Rienzi
Consumers have been downloading smartphone and tablet apps such as Luminosity and Fit Brains that claim to boost cognitive ability and otherwise ward off mental decline. But do they actually improve memory, alertness, and focus?
“In essence, playing these games makes you better at, well, the game itself,” says David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The effects are very small and don’t last very long.” Linden equates the effect to feverishly preparing for the SAT exam (as his son is doing). You get better at SAT-form tests, for a limited time.
 
Luminosity and Fit Brains, similar in concept with both free and monthly subscription versions, run the user through a gamut of quick brainteasers that test attention and memory. You match pairs, recognize patterns, and recall images and shapes. The more correct answers in a given time span, the higher your score. These types of games typically exercise short-term memory, which tends to decline as we age, Linden says.
 
Some studies suggest these games can have a small, generalized effect on cognitive function in the elderly. But the data is suspect, Linden says. “Many of the studies have limited data or involved those with strong ties to the financial interests of the game itself. At this point, I’m willing to believe that you can create a brain game that would have some reasonable benefit. But, to date, the evidence is weak.” 
 
What about the assertion that these games help a 70-year-old regain the memory function of a 50-year-old? Sounds impressive, Linden says, but in reality there isn’t that much difference. “It’s really a small effect, if any at all.”
 
How, then, to keep your brain fit? Linden has two words: physical exercise. Walking 30 minutes a day has a greater effect than playing any brain game, he says. “I’m not talking killer exercises or running marathons. Even moderate, low-intensity exercise is five times more beneficial to cognitive tasks than playing brain games on your iPad,” he says.
 
Research has shown that exercise can increase the volume of the brain and elevate patterns of activity. The effects can be particularly beneficial for people who are middle-aged, making them better at real-world tasks like finding a car in the mall parking lot or recalling a phone number.
 
As for brain games, Linden has some final words on their benefit. “I work in a department of neuroscience with a few dozen men and women in their middle age, and guess what? Zero of us are doing these brain games,” he says. “If my colleagues thought [these games] would benefit our mental ability, we’d all be at our desks playing them right now. I mean, c’mon, we’re computer and brain geeks. This would be right up our alley.”
Fun illustration of both hemispheres of a brain
John Hersey

"At this point, I’m willing to believe that you can create a brain game that would have some reasonable benefit,” says David Linden. “But, to date, the evidence is weak.”

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