Formal "brain exercise" won't help healthy seniors: research

NEW YORK Wed Feb 18, 2009 3:22pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Healthy older people shouldn't bother spending money on computer games and websites promising to ward off mental decline, the author of a review of scientific evidence for the benefits of these "brain exercise" programs says.

"These marketed products don't confer any additional benefit over and above being socially and intellectually active in one's normal daily life," Dr. Peter J. Snyder of Lifespan Affiliated Hospitals in Providence, Rhode Island, told Reuters Health. "There are some things that we could be doing that have much more rigorous data to support their application."

Types of "brain training" are known to help people with memory problems function better, but their benefits for those who don't have measurable cognitive impairment isn't clear, Snyder and his team note in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia. Meanwhile, Snyder said in an interview, the market for these products has swelled from $2 million in 2005 to an estimated $225 million this year.

To review evidence on the benefits of cognitive training for healthy older people, Snyder and his colleagues analyzed 10 randomized controlled trials of a variety of approaches, ranging from a popular computer-based program to individualized piano lessons.

While there was some evidence that brain training helped people's immediate performance on tasks related to the training, there was no evidence that the effects could be generalized to other areas of mental function, Snyder and his colleagues found. Further, just half of the studies included extended follow-up, so evidence for long-term benefits was slim.

The findings don't mean that brain training isn't helpful for people who have memory problems, Snyder told Reuters Health, nor are they definitive proof that brain exercise can't help keep healthy people's wits sharp.

But social and intellectual engagement in day-to-day life, from reading to grandchildren to doing crossword puzzles, is "probably just as effective or more effective" than any formal brain exercise program, he added. Further, he pointed out, these activities are free.

Also, Snyder said, there is strong scientific evidence that being physically active every day preserves cognitive function. Because cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes are both known to contribute to mental decline, he added, exercising and taking other steps to maintain heart health and a healthy weight will help keep the brain healthy, too.

SOURCE: Alzheimer's & Dementia, January 2009.

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