Perform a web search on “brain scam” and you will find several articles questioning the veracity of claims made with respect to brain fitness or brain exercise programs. Are these programs a scam? One thing is clear, they appear to be rapidly increasing in popularity – all the way from self help books and DVDs to computer based brain fitness games. In the first category, Dr. Daniel Amen’s program is probably one of the most well known and in the second category, the Lumosity program is gaining widespread recognition. In both cases there are websites addressing the question of whether these programs are associated with scams. But are they? The answer depends on what the expectations are from such programs. This article will address one potential expectation that many may have – namely that such programs will prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Is using the brain in brain fitness programs a way to prevent Alzheimer’s? The scientific facts are that engaging the brain in intellectual tasks throughout life is “protective” against Alzheimer’s, but even this statement needs to be carefully evaluated. What is actually meant by this is that individuals who have higher levels of education tend to have Alzheimer’s disease later in life if at all, and so seem relatively protected against it. Many studies have shown that more intensive and longer duration of education are associated with reduced age matched rates of Alzheimer’s. In addition, the type of occupation one has, which commonly reflects the degree of brain effort required, also correlates with rates of onset of Alzheimer’s at specific ages. So the idea of “use it or lose it” emerges from such studies and endorses the concept that engagement of mental functions is protective against Alzheimer’s disease or rather can delay its onset.
However, the best studies in these categories assess what an individual has done throughout life, usually over decades. There are fewer conclusions to be drawn about intervention studies, where brain fitness programs are introduced to those at risk for Alzheimer’s disease and rates of development of Alzheimer’s disease measured. The reason is there are very few studies in this category. In particular, many programs claiming benefit in reduction of risk for Alzheimer’s have never been tested in intervention studies. What we do know is that a variety of interventions in normal, elderly adults can improve their memory and other mental faculties. These benefits are usually restricted to the specific faculty being trained and the idea of a crossover into other cognitive areas is hotly disputed.
There remains a great lack of clarity about exactly which type of brain use and the length of time required to engage such activities, is needed to reduce risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Many more studies are needed in this regard, including very long term ones looking at chronic use of brain fitness programs in those at risk for Alzheimer’s disease
, with examination of the subsequent rates of dementia. Until that time many claims of prevention of Alzheimer’s by certain programs are unproven and may well be misleading, or at best, wishful thinking.
By Dr. Michael Mullan