The rise of smartphones introduced a slew of cultural shifts. Some of these shifts have been valuable additions to our lives (GPS). Others, not so much (the selfie).
But what about brain games? You know, the popular apps that claim to strengthen our brains through a series of entertaining challenges.
Maybe you’re one of the tens of millions who have jumped into the brain games trend. Even if you haven’t you’re basically guaranteed to know somebody who has. So before you rely too heavily on these apps for mental maintenance, let’s take a moment to determine what you should actually expect.
There are a few names in the brain games space, but one brand stands head and shoulders above the rest: Lumosity. The Lumosity team has claimed the lead through aggressive advertising (more on that below), a polished piece of software, and genuinely fun games disguised as training.
At one point, the company boasted an amazing 60 million users.
There is a free version of Lumosity available, but it only gives you access to three of the app’s games, which can become dull quickly. The full version of the app is only available by subcription. Subscriptions currently run $15 per month or $80 per year.
The business model has been lucrative, netting the company tens of millions of dollars. The other brain game options typically follow the same model with similar price points.
So before you sink your time and money, let’s take a look at what you can actually expect to reap from the investment.
Do brain games actually work? The answer, sadly, seems to be no.
The advertising at the inception of these programs promised a lot. For instance, Lumosity has claimed that as little as 15 minutes of daily app usage would:
“Improve performance on everyday tasks…delay age-related decline in memory and protect against mild cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease, and reduce cognitive impairment associated with the side effects of chemotherapy, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Turner syndrome, stroke, and other health conditions.”
Sounds pretty good right?
Too bad the claims proved mostly empty. In 2016 the creators of Lumosity (Lumo Labs) settled a 50 million dollar judgement with the Federal Trade Commission for 2 million dollars. The impressive claims simply could not be supported through scientific evidence.
In fairness, the judgement against Lumosity seems to have as much to do with the aggressiveness of their claims as it does the ineffectiveness of the end product.
Research into the actual impacts of these types of games has been mixed. In all studies, the participants improve in their ability to complete the required tasks, but the degree to which they receive a correlating gain in meaningful mental performance ranges from marginal to non-existent.
What Does Work?
If you’ve been relying on brain games to do the extraordinary, then it’s important to adjust expectations.
But it’s also important to point out that brain games aren’t inherently bad either. As long as you enjoy them, and don’t expect to become Albert Einstein when you reach the next level, they can actually be a good use of your time. This is especially true if they replace truly mindless activities like watching television. That brings us to our first tip to improving/retaining cognitive function:
1. Remain Active
You’ve probably heard that the brain is like a muscle in that it atrophies without use. This is absolutely true. So it’s important to be as active and engaged as possible to maintain mental ability.
2. Get Fit
There’s actually a link between physical fitness and cognitive performance. Across the population, those with better cardiovascular and pulmonary health generally also possess higher IQ’s. The theory is that a stronger heart and lungs provide the brain with more oxygen.
3. Focus On Nutrition
Eating foods high in vitamins and antioxidants is another good way to preserve mental function. Vitamins C, D, and E are particularly helpful, even when there isn’t an existing dietary deficit.
These options aren’t quite as easy as downloading something from the app store and playing for 15 minutes a day. But on the bright side, they are all proven to be highly effective at keeping you at the top of your game.