We all know what it's like: You fail to notice road signs while driving; you forget the name of an acquaintance; you find yourself in your kitchen, staring at the floor, not sure why you went in there in the first place. Even young people experience moments like these, but as we age, cognitive lapses become more frequent and problematic.
Researchers believe that reduction in brain tissue and deterioration in the brain's wiring are partly to blame for these problems. However, experts also believe that these changes are not irreversible. Indeed, several new studies suggest that, even in older age, the brain can repair itself through the right kinds of exercises. What kinds of exercises? No, not just crossword puzzles. Try computer games.
In one study, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, researchers had older adults play an off-the-shelf video game, the Rise of Nations, that requires players to think strategically: They build new cities, improve urban infrastructure, and expand their nation's borders. The researchers found that the game enhanced participants' planning abilities, hand-eye coordination, and their ability to react quickly.
A similar study, published in the Journal of American Geriatric Society, suggests that cognitive decline can be slowed with computerized exercises that continuously tone, stretch, and improve brain functions—but that mildly stimulating exercises don't have the same effect. Researchers examined 487 older adults, ages 65-93, in California and Minnesota. For 40 hours, participants listened on a computer to a recording that required paying close attention to detail, processing information at a fast rate, and detecting subtle differences in sound quality. Afterwards, the researchers observed improvement in the participants' memory, ability to pay attention to minute details, and the speed at which they were able to process sounds such as speech.
The researchers argue that they saw such positive effects because the exercises were designed to be constantly challenging, keeping participants on their toes and pushing their cognitive envelope. A control group, which watched educational material on history, art, and literature, and completed quizzes on what they learned, did not show similar improvements.
These are just two of several recent studies that suggest that intensive and challenging computer training can help older adults regain lost cognitive functions. In fact, in the March issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, researcher Michael Valenzuela and his colleagues looked at nine recent programs that have used computerized exercises to improve cognitive functioning in older adults. They found that computerized cognitive training had "lasting positive effects on mental function even well after training had ceased."
Valenzuela and his co-authors argue that these results fit in with other 'use it or lose it' research—findings that suggest staying mentally active could help prevent dementia and generally maintain brain function. In an interview, Valenzuela suggested that, particularly after retirement, people should "take up new activities with three key ingredients—mental, social, and physical exercise—for optimal brain health." However, he also cautions that "more research is needed to prove that cognitive exercise helps stave off more serious forms of dementia and cognitive decline."
To learn more about brain fitness games:
The study published in the Journal of American Geriatric Society uses computerized training provided by PositScience.
And SharpBrains provides market research related to the brain fitness market.