There is a multi-million dollar brain training industry with Apps and Online programs as well as huge numbers of ‘snake oil’ salesmen ready to sell you any number of vitamin, mineral or Nootropic Supplements. (at least they have SOMETHING in them!) or homeopathic ‘medicine’. (Literally – there’s NOTHING in it!) even crystals, Pyrite, Clear Quartz, Rhodonite or Fluorite because “memory is associated with the Third Eye and Crown chakras” – (Interesting that spell check wants to change chakras to charades!) These will do no harm except to your bank balance and unlike some of the things to try below are unlikely to give a great deal of pleasure whilst trying them out, but let us not forget that the placebo effect can be incredibly powerful.
“Just as the desperate, terminally ill cancer patient often turns to expensive placebos for an imaginary chance at more life, the desperate, terminally alive sad people turn to expensive placebos for a chance to imagine a decent life.”
The vast majority of these ‘offers’ have been debunked, the others are mostly so ridiculous that science has not even bothered testing them! Brain Training Apps and Online programs have had their exaggerated claims somewhat debunked by a review which examined studies purporting to show the benefits of such products and found “little evidence … that training improves everyday cognitive performance”. The ‘use it or lose it’ idea is behind the growing market for so-called ‘brain training’ products. These computer-based games or tasks are designed to be mentally stimulating. However, the expert view is that people who play these games get better at them but might well not see improvements in their thinking skills more broadly.
The law has been involved too. In January 2016, one of the biggest companies selling these products was fined by the US government Federal Trade Commission for making claims that weren’t supported by evidence and that, in the Commission’s words, ‘preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline’.
This probably goes for Sudoku and ‘brain training’ word games too which only improve performance of the skills involved, although as pastimes they probably only ‘waste’ the limited and valuable time their players have left on the planet!
‘Use it or Lose it’, Chicken or Egg?
Research studies of the cognition of older people involve testing thinking skills and seeing if those who do better have common factors in their day to day life and activities. These studies usually find that those people who do more mentally stimulating activities have better thinking skills in older age.
How do we explain this?
Chicken : The demands of mentally stimulating activities makes one cognitively sharper.
Egg : Those who retain their thinking skills better when younger are more mentally capable in older age.
…or is it that those who can do more mentally stimulating activities in older age are those who had higher thinking skills to begin with from childhood.
Getting more precise evidenced based detail is however a huge challenge.
More of the same, or do more?
Effective strategies for improving our thinking skills may be those that give us new challenges. That is doing something new that we haven’t done before.
A large study had participants learn to quilt, learn digital photography, or engage in both activities over a period of 3 months. The results indicated that episodic memory was enhanced in the productive-engagement group compared to those who engaged in non-intellectual activity. The authors suggest that sustained engagement in cognitively demanding, novel activities enhances memory function in older adulthood.
Two activities which do have evidence are learning an instrument and learning a new language.
It is well established that certain activities have positive neurological benefit to overall brain health and may even help to keep the mind sharper as we age and one of these is learning to play a musical instrument. The process of musical training shows ‘experience-dependent plasticity’ occurs in the brain and has ‘transfer effects’ that seem to have a far wider effect on the brain and mental functioning as well as improving other abilities that are seemingly unrelated.
See my blog Music – Exercise for the brain.
“Music probably does something unique,” explains neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday of the University of Westminster. “It stimulates the brain in a very powerful way, because of our emotional connection with it.”
Playing a musical instrument necessarily involves integrating information using our senses of vision, hearing, and touch and involves coordination, fine movements as well as cognition and learning. Dr Bernard Ross, of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, Canada, demonstrated that “learning the fine movement needed to reproduce a sound on an instrument changes the brain’s perception of sound in a way that is not seen when listening to music” and the centre now uses musical training to help stroke survivors rehabilitate motor movement in their upper bodies. This ‘experience-dependent plasticity’ demonstrates the brains ability to rewire itself and compensate for injuries or diseases that may hamper a person’s capacity to perform tasks by inducing long-lasting changes in the brain. Non-scientific studies of professional musicians have also shown these structural brain changes have a dramatic impact by enhancing memory, spatial reasoning, language and literacy skills.
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I started playing guitar again after a 30 year break – With Kieran’s help I’m now a ‘guitarist’ albeit until recently a ‘back bedroom rock star’!!! I have recently found other like minded albeit rather more talented musicians ‘of a certain age’ (Albeit we are all significantly younger than any Rolling Stone!) and am now in a band of old dinosaurs! – Aardonyx!
Researchers also hope the finding could lead to older people being taught to play instruments to halt dementia related conditions as learning to play even a sound on a musical instrument improves listening and hearing skills over a short time frame. Drs Tram Nguyen and Jessica A. Grahn of the University of Western Ontario suggest that not only is it possible for stronger cognitive function to stave off dementia, but it also allows one to enjoy a better quality of life with a more active brain. “That you can get from music, but music isn’t necessarily special in that way, except for the fact that music also tends to have mood benefits,” and these music related mood benefits also help one learn to play an instrument as well! Having a positive mood and reducing stress is also very good for general well-being and sleep, which is also known to enhance brain function.
Learning a new language probably works in a similar way and there is evidence to say that keeping our social relationships active and doing hobbies and activities that we enjoy are important to maintaining quality of life and well-being in older age. The social engagement in class and meeting new people from different cultures in different countries is likely more fun than Sudoku or a jig-saw puzzle!