Brain games may not help in the long term

By Anne Halliwell, a website that attempts to improve users’ cognitive abilities through targeted tests and exercises, bills itself as “the web’s most popular brain training program.”

With nearly 50 million users and a web page full of glowing testimonies, one might conclude that there is a benefit to purchasing these types of programs.

But that may not be the case, said assistant professor Erin Abner of the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. Current research shows that while the tests may increase capability in one specific area, those gains are rarely generalized, she said.

Abner referenced a study on advanced cognitive training for independent and vital elderly, in which participants of an average age of 82 years underwent six weeks of randomized training to target reasoning, memory or cognitive speed, according to the study published in January 2014.

Over the next 10 years, each study group showed improvements in the area that they had studied, with the reasoning and speed groups maintaining their improvement for the entire period.

“What we generally find in the research is that while people … get better at the things they are learning … it doesn’t really translate to other areas,” Abner said.

According to “Is Working Memory Training Effective? A Meta-Analytic Review,” by Monica Melby-Lervag of the University of Oslo, few programs are able to significantly and permanently increase memory function across the board.

“The authors conclude that memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects,” Melby-Lervag wrote.

In the long run, students who are concerned about cognitive decline probably won’t see much improvement from sites like Lumosity, Abner said.

Although she said that brain-training games won’t hurt anyone, Abner suggested another way of improving one’s brain and staving off cognitive decline: higher education.

Abner said that merely attending college is shown to increase mental function and even boost IQ while schooling continues, which goes much further than targeted mental gymnastics.

“You’re not really improving your intelligence,” Abner said. “You’re just getting better at the game.”