Can Computer Games Help My Memory?
Turn on the television or radio and chances are it won’t take long before you hear an advertisement for “brain training” computer game programs that are meant to give your brain a workout and prevent dementia. The claims made in the advertisements sound great – but can we really give our brains a workout by playing games on a computer or smartphone?
What does the research say?
- There have only been a few randomized controlled studies (the gold standard in research) about the effects of specific computer based programs.
- One such study, called the Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training (IMPACT) Study was as multi-site study (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Rochester) led by researchers at Mayo Clinic. The goal of the study was to see whether older adults without evidence of cognitive or memory impairment who used the Brain Fitness program by Posit Science would show improvements on formal tests of memory and attention and in how they perceived their cognitive abilities in daily life.
- Participants used the program for one hour per day, 5 days per week, for 8-10 weeks.
- Another group of participants (the “control” group) did not use the program, but spent the same amount of time watching educational DVDs and taking paper and pencil quizzes to see what they remembered.
- Before and after the training period, both groups were given neuropsychological tests and questionnaires to see whether the training had an effect on memory and other thinking abilities and their perception of cognitive abilities.
- RESULTS: The group that did the Brain Fitness training improved (compared to the control group) on a test of memory, a test of thinking speed, and in their report of how good their memory in everyday life was.
- The catch: the benefits went away when people stopped doing the exercise.
- A review of all of the studies on this topic from 1970-2007 found that overall, cognitive interventions, such as computer brain training programs lead to improvements in memory, but there is not good evidence that this is the ONLY way to get these benefits. In other words, computer based games seem to help, but so do other kinds of mental exercise.
- A more recent publication by researchers at the University of Southern California, which combined results from multiple published studies, found that cognitive training improved thinking skills to the same extent as regular aerobic exercise.
- The National Academies of Sciences was tasked by the National Institutes of Aging, the primary funding agency in the United States for aging related research, to evaluate the current state of the knowledge on interventions for preventing cognitive decline and dementia. In 2017, it published its report and one intervention they determined has "encouraging but inconclusive evidence" is cognitive training (in addition to physical exercise and controlling high blood pressure). It is important to note that they define cognitive training much more broadly than computer games. Cognitive exercise could be computer brain games, but could be other non computerized, cognitively challenging activities as well. They conclude that more research is needed to determine definitely the impact of these interventions, but that it is reasonable to expect cognitive exercise may help and for health care providers to recommend it.
- Finally, in a recent review specific to Mild Cognitive Impairment and specific to computerized brain games, they found that brain games may modestly benefit aspects of cognition as well as mood in patients with MCI.
So, what’s the bottom line?
- Cognitive exercise is likely beneficial. If you like computer-type games, give one of the “brain training” programs a try. One advantage of these programs is that they adapt to your skill level and get harder as you get better, therefore providing a consistent challenge.
- But, you don’t have to spend money every month on a subscription to a computer program to see results. You can just as easily do something else to challenge your mind. Some examples are: learning to play a musical instrument, learning a new language, take up a new hobby or doing anything that really challenges your brain.
- If you are already an expert at something (e.g., playing the guitar, crossword puzzles) you may need to try something new or make it more challenging (e.g., learning a new musical piece, trying harder crossword puzzles) to keep getting the cognitive exercise benefit.
- The important thing is that you get in the habit of consistently doing something to keep your brain engaged!
- Chime in! How do you keep your mind active?