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Ahead of the Game: How Online Brain Training Staves Off Cognitive Decline

Ahead of the Game: How Online Brain Training Staves Off Cognitive Decline
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BY ELISABETH DANIELS

When we here at Fifty is the New Fifty learned that researchers at King’s College London found mental exercises kept minds sharp and helped people with basic skills like shopping and cooking, we were intrigued.

The King’s College study tracked nearly 7,000 people aged 50 and over for six months who had no problems with memory or cognition when they signed up. The participants who played “brain training” games retained their broader cognitive skills better than those who didn’t. Playing five days a week seemed to be the tipping point for the brain benefits.

We dug deeper and found a 2013 study of California retirees reported in the American Journal Geriatric Psychiatry. It noted improvements in memory and language skills by participants who engaged in a commercially available set of computerized brain-training games.

Because more and more seniors are online, Internet-based tools are a cost-effective way to promote healthy lifestyle choices for both the brain and the body. Which means these studies could have big ramifications for our quality of life as we age.

We reached out to Dr. Kate Zhong from Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, Nevada, to get more information on this tantalizing field of study. Dr. Zhong recently developed HealthyBrains.org, a website and app that provides customized tips and recommendations to improve brain health.

Dr. Zhong explained, “The areas of brain training and mental fitness have generated tremendous interest in the past decade. There has been a steady increase in the number of digital tools aimed at improving cognitive functioning and brain health.”

HealthyBrains.org is accessible from a computer, laptop, tablet or smart phone. You can complete a free brain check-up, receive personalized reports and keep up-to-date on brain health news and scientific breakthroughs at any time and from any place. Your progress is recorded and tracked, and is presented on a personalized dashboard. The tailored recommendations, ranging from nutritious recipes, tips to get a better night’s sleep and the importance of exercise, are all based on something called the Six Pillars of Brain Health: Get Moving, Keep Sharp, Eat Smart, Stay Connected, Rest Well and Control Risks.

Dr. Zhong added, “From mobile apps to internet websites, there are multiple options to choose from, and it is anticipated that there will be more to come in the future.”

According to Dr. Zhong, in those over 50, participating long-term in mentally stimulating activities can significantly reduce the risk of memory problems, trouble learning and attention issues down the road.

“Brain training can help people over 50 keep their minds sharp—improving cognitive performance (memory, language, attention, focus, and concentration),” noted Dr. Zhong, “and with consistent participation, help to reduce the risk for long-term age-related cognitive decline.”

So what exactly is an online brain training program? Does a Google search count?

Not really, said Dr. Zhong. “There is no doubt that searching online is a cognitively stimulating activity, but it is not a substitute for participating in a structured, clinically-proven, comprehensive brain training program that exercises all the essential cognitive domains.”

She’s referring to computer games specifically designed to test memory, verbal reasoning, attentiveness and spatial awareness.

And Dr. Zhong points out that online games are only part of brain health.

“Many forms of activity can promote mental fitness — hobbies, puzzles, learning a language, taking a class, to name a few,” she said. “The games are fun and do no harm, so why not? But they should be part of an active lifestyle that includes exercise and social engagement, which help keep minds active.”

Whatever program you decide to do, stick with it. Studies show benefits are tied to consistency. “Just like going to the gym, you can’t expect to stay in shape if you stop going,” said Dr. Zhong, “so each of the brain training programs will require regular use.”

Since most of the programs offer free, time-limited, trials, you can check one out to see if it’s a fit before you commit to it. You may want to try several of the different programs before deciding which one is best for you and your goals.

Dr. Zhong sums it up this way: “The idea of harnessing the tremendous power of the technology to assist in keeping minds young is an exciting possibility and deserves the attention of the brain health community.” Game on!

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