We are all subject to random bouts of forgetting. Where did I park my car? I forgot my grocery list. Why am I in this room? These complaints increase with age and are the source of both jokes about senior moments and serious fear of developing Alzheimer’s disease. However, there is a huge difference between the increasing inefficiencies in memory resulting from aging and memory loss and dementia.
The fears have produced a burgeoning business in brain training programs such as Lumosity. Lumosity has about 50 million users and is the best known of these programs. It promises to improve attention and the capacity to learn. Strong promises if short-term memory begins to fail. The Centers for Medicare Services is exploring whether to pay for memory fitness training, which would create a boom market for these services.
But does brain training work as promised? There are actually several questions within this broader question that are quite different. First, can interventions that challenge the brain really raise intelligence? Second, can brain training help mitigate the normal cognitive changes that result from aging? Third, does brain training stave off or slow down the trajectory of progressive decline such as Alzheimer’s disease?
Most of the actual research on brain training has addressed its effects in treating ADD or traumatic brain injury/stroke or healthy adults. Older methods of training the brain were called mnemonics and consisted of strategies such as the method of loci. For example, Mark Twain memorized talks by walking a route on his property and “hanging” parts of the talk on different landmarks that he could use by mentally take the walk as he gave the speech. Alternatively one could learn a list of words by making a story of them.
There are numerous reviews of research addressing the issue of brain training in healthy adults and children. For example, Monica Melby-Hume and Charles Hulme asked the question “Is working memory training effective…?” (Developmental Psychology, 2013, 49, 270-291). The reviews are consistent in concluding that while training improves the skills that are trained, there is no evidence that these gains transfer to other tasks or skills. In other words you get better at he games but you still forget where you parked your car.
The question of whether brain training staves of memory loss such as Alzheimer’s disease has not been adequately addressed. The bottom line is that the science isn’t up to the hype. The marketing promises go beyond the data. Cognitive stimulation and learning are good things. But when it comes down to paying for these programs I have to ask are subscriptions really better than designing your own self selected methods of challenge?