Although many so-called brain-training products claim to keep minds sharper and stave off dementia, evidence in support has not been overwhelming. The latest analysis, however, finds that not all brain-training is equal.
There are many companies that offer computerized brain-training tools, many of which promise to keep older minds more agile for longer.
Individual companies claiming to provide health benefits without the backing of solid evidence has caused a pushback from scientists.
A group of experts from the Stanford Center on Longevity released a statement in 2014, which said:
“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do.”
However, according to findings presented at the American Psychological Association’s 124th Annual Convention this week, there is one type of training that does have the support of scientific evidence.
The results were presented by Jerri Edwards, Ph.D., of the University of South Florida, who says: “The mistake some people make is thinking that all brain-training is the same.”
“Lumping all brain-training together is like trying to determine the effectiveness of antibiotics by looking at the universe of all pills, and including sugar pills and dietary supplements in that analysis. You’ll find that some work and some do not.
To then conclude that brain-training does not work – or is not yet proven – is based on flawed analysis.”
Jerri Edwards, PhD
So, although studies, overall, are contradictory in their findings, Edwards believes that by throwing all training regimes into one pot, the results have been homogenized and become meaningless.
To rectify this knowledge gap, Edwards and her team carried out a systematic review and meta-analysis of more than 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers specifically looking at speed of processing training.
According to Edwards, speed of processing training improves the speed and accuracy of visual attention, in other words, someone’s mental agility.
As an example, in one of the tasks, the user identifies a target object in the center of the screen, a truck or car, for instance. The participant is then required to identify a second target in the periphery of their vision.
With practice, the time taken to identify the peripheral target gets shorter and shorter. Even when the task is made more difficult by adding distracting objects around the targets, people improve their performance over time.
Speed of processing training was found to improve a number of areas of cognitive performance including attention, behavioral (such as depressive symptoms and feelings of control), and functional performance in real-life situations.
One of the most transferable benefits of speed of processing training is its demonstrable effect on driving ability. Studies have shown that this type of brain-training improves stopping distance by 22 feet at 55 miles per hour and decreases dangerous maneuvers by 36 percent.
Alongside the review and analysis, the researchers also presented results from their Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study.
The study was the first large-scale, randomized trial to test the long-term impact of brain-training on the prevention of cognitive impairment in an individual’s daily life.
The study used 2,832 individuals, aged 65-94, and examined the long-term effects of brain-training on dementia prevention. The team found that the cohort’s dementia risk was reduced by 48 percent over 10 years for those who completed 11 or more sessions of the brain-training technique.
Overall, risk of dementia was reduced by 8 percent for each session of speed processing training.
Edwards concludes: “Some brain-training does work, but not all of it. People should seek out training backed by multiple peer-reviewed studies. The meta-analysis of this particular speed of processing training shows it can improve how people function in their everyday lives.”
The fact that something as accessible as a computer-generated program might stave off dementia and make American roads safer is certainly a reason to be excited.