With promises of improving your cognitive ability such as processing speed, problem-solving, and even memory, brain games for seniors and other adults are huge things these days. These games, though not that expensive, can be an added cost in the household with yearly subscription that can run as much as $120.

But can these games really improve one’s cognitive functioning? Or are they just another hype created by companies who only want to take advantage of those who badly wanted to improve their brain function?

Understanding the Brain

The brain is just like other parts of the body; it changes in each passing year. We start to lose our neurons by the time we hit our late 20s. Neurons are cells that make up the nervous system and are responsible for processing and transmitting information between the parts of the brain.

Losing the neurons don’t actually affect intelligence but it can contribute to brain atrophy. This usually comes with aging and can lead to progressive cognitive impairment. But some studies show that brain shrinkage can be delayed. One of the means to do that is through constant brain stimulation.

Do Brain Games Really Work

Claims of Brain Games Companies

Brain games came about with the premise that brains are just like muscles. The more you train it, the more likely you can improve it.

In the past, it was thought that cognitive ability cannot be improved. But a 2008 study of psychologist Susanne Jaeggi changed that. According to their research, fluid intelligence or a person’s ability to solve a problem independent of previously acquired knowledge can be improved through practice. Since then, several studies have popped up, often citing Jaeggi’s research findings.

Companies promoting brain games lie on these premises. They claim that by setting a few minutes each day playing their games, one can improve his/her concentration, verbal reasoning, and memory. They further claim that daily brain training will make them feel smarter and sharper.

A lot of people buy this idea. Most of them are baby boomers who are experiencing a decline in their cognitive function and parents of students who would want to improve significantly their child’s academic performance.

Many of the companies offering these brain games claim that their promises are based on solid scientific evidence. Their games are said to be designed by neuroscientists from top universities and research centers.

Doubts on Brain Games

The multi-million dollar industry of brain games has raised concerns among psychologists and neuroscientists. Many of them are skeptical in the role of brain games for improving cognitive function and preventing cognitive decline.

Several studies have been done to find out if the claims of brain game companies are true. One of these studies is done by Dr. Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist.

In 2010, Dr. Owen conducted a study on computerized brain training programs to find out if the benefits of these programs can be transferred to other tasks. The study involved 11,430 participants who trained for several weeks in various areas including reasoning, memory, and visuospatial skills. It was found out that these brain training programs worked in helping participants improve in the trained tasks but there was no evidence showing that the same benefits apply to untrained tasks, even if they are closely related to the trained ones.

According to Ulman Lindenberger of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, a major problem of these brain games is that they only measure improvement based on a single task rather than a range of tasks. This makes it hard to prove that their benefits really represent broad ability.

In response to claims of brain game companies, Stanford University Center on Longevity issued a statement saying that the scientific literature does not support the claims that software-based brain training programs improve general cognitive performance or slow down brain disease.


Playing Brain Games for Fun

It’s not all negative news for brain game fans. Some neuroscientists like Roberto Cabeza of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina think that playing these games for fun can be good as long as they’re not treated as a chore.

A good combination will most likely be playing these brain games for fun and doing other strategies to improve brain function like exercising, learning something new, maintaining a healthy diet, and keeping good social support.

The brain is a complex organ and it will take more studies to fully understand how it works and whether brain games can actually play a role in improving cognitive function.