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Are the promises of ‘brain game’ gains too good to be true?

Lumosity suggest users will ‘learn faster’ and ‘not miss stuff’ if they use its brain-training system, but research suggests it’s not so simple.

Nearly 750,000 Canadians are living with Alzheimer's disease, dementia or some form of cognitive impairment. By 2031, that number could shoot as high as 1.4-million, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

The rapidly rising rates are causing more people to be aware of, and concerned about, the state of their brain health – giving a big boost to an already burgeoning industry dedicated to keeping our brains in shape.

Anyone with TV or Internet access has undoubtedly encountered an advertisement for one of the many so-called "brain games" that have flooded the market. Most prevalent are commercials for Lumosity, which suggest that users will "learn faster" and "not miss stuff" if they invest time and money in its brain-training system. Many of these brain-training programs involve matching similar objects, remembering patterns or recalling specific aspects of stories. Often, the companies say their programs are based on science and have been clinically tested.

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It all sounds so easy. For consumers, the lure is the marketing pitch that these games will lead to tangible results over time: They'll help you recall names more easily, remember where you left the keys, and keep track of day-to-day events in a more organized fashion.

"It's like we've been in the dark ages and now we're starting to come out and see the sun," says Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science, which sells a brain-training program called BrainHQ.

But consumers who shell out for these brain-training programs might not feel so smart if they knew that the promises and claims made by some companies in the field are simply too good to be true.

The idea that computer-based games can help us stave off memory loss, brain fog and forgetfulness is tantalizing, and the global market for various online cognitive training products reached more than $1.3-billion (U.S.) last year, according to Sharp Brains, a San Francisco-based market research firm that tracks health and performance neuroscience applications. For the average consumer, monthly subscriptions to brain-training programs can cost anywhere from $8 to 15; for a year, the prices average about $100.

The lucrative growth in the industry is no doubt spurred by awareness that scientists now know that the brain is constantly changing and evolving, giving us the opportunity to enhance its capabilities as we age. The term used to describe this process is neuroplasticity. Brain-training software is sold on the premise the exercises can harness the brain's plasticity to help people stay sharper, remember faster and be more focused.

What does the actual research say? It's a lot less clear-cut than advertisements would have you believe.

In January, the results of a large randomized controlled trial funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that while brain-training exercises may have a positive effect on reasoning and speed of processing for up to 10 years, the positive results don't seem to transfer to real-life experiences. In other words, brain-games exercises may simply help people get better at brain games.

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When the trial began a decade ago, the average age of the 2,832 participants was 74. At the end of the study, fewer than half of the participants were still involved. The researchers found that, compared with those who underwent brain training, the control group in the study performed just as well in daily functional tasks such as shopping, using the telephone, getting dressed and travelling outside the home.

Dr. Judes Poirier, a renowned Alzheimer's researcher based at McGill University's Douglas Mental Health University Institute, says brain-training exercises can have some benefits. But the problem is many companies exaggerate how well their training programs work, and as a result, some consumers feel misled. For instance, companies often conduct clinical trials that last for three months. Neurologists know that is the window when the greatest effect will be seen, but after three months, any beneficial effects will plateau or even taper. Trials, then, should last at least a year to demonstrate whether the program truly makes a lasting, meaningful difference.

Some research supports the contention that brain games can help slow the cognitive decline of people, including those diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or dementia, but the benefits are relatively small and are usually contained to short-term memory. The training doesn't help people get from their house to the mailbox, or find their way home from the mall. And there isn't convincing evidence that brain games will make a difference in recalling names or remembering where you left the car keys.

Poirier likens it to working out one bicep: It will tone your arm and build your muscle, but it won't do anything about the spare tire you're carrying, or the junk in your trunk. If you just want a bigger bicep, then it's worth it.

Brain games won't do any harm, but for the amount of time and money they require, consumers might be better off focusing their energy on preventative measures that are likely to give them more bang for their buck, such as diet and exercise. There's mounting evidence that people who exercise maintain a healthy lifestyle are less likely to experience a cognitive decline.

In particular, a Finnish study made waves in July when researchers showed that people at high risk for Alzheimer's disease who were physically active, had a healthy diet, controlled cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and were socially engaged performed much better on memory and cognitive functioning tests than a control group.

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That suggests that spending less time at the computer and focusing on healthy living might be the best brain-training program of all.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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