While downloading or purchasing a program to enhance cognitive abilities and stave off dementia sounds like a great way to make your memory last, recent studies have shown that the marketing has gotten ahead of the science, and the claims are hard to back. Here’s what science has determined about memory games for adults.
The Practice Effect
While not a new concept, it’s probably not one you’ve thought out before. The practice effect states that repeated exposure to something, whether it’s a brain game like Lumosity or playing the piano, improves cognitive performance over time. The opposite also is true. This is why people lose foreign-language skills over time if they have no one with whom to practice that skill and converse. They become rusty in remembering the vocabulary. But those who practice their skills regularly become more adept the more they practice.
The Transfer Effect
Now consider the transfer effect: If you play a musical instrument, can you transfer that skill to play a different musical instrument? When you change one aspect — for example, the instrument — and you become better, it is called the near transfer effect.
The question that Lumosity claims to answer, however, is the far transfer effect: Will practicing one thing improve your abilities at something else?
Initially, research showed that it could, a revelation that sparked the creation of brain-game programs for adults. But by 2013, a review of 23 various programs drew the conclusion that there is no long-term effect from using these games.
The Placebo Effect
Another study conducted by the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the placebo effect is responsible for positive findings associated with brain training. The study put out two fliers: one inviting students to participate in brain-training research, and the other offering college credit for participation.
The students were given one hour of cognitive brain training, and completed an intelligence test before and after. Researchers found that the students who responded to the credit flier showed no improvement on their test scores, while the students who responded to the brain training flier improved their scores by five to 10 points.
While there is controversy around whether this experiment can speak conclusively on the validity of brain games, don’t throw away your Lumosity just yet. Here’s what we know about these apps and programs.
They Hold You Accountable
Purchasing a memory program is similar to buying a membership at your local gym. You feel more obligated to do it because you’re paying for it, and there’s more motivation to follow through with an established program than coming up with exercises on your own. Imagine having all the equipment at your fingertips, or sitting in your basement with your dumbbells. You can exercise in either situation, but only one includes the financial commitment, and therefore a desire to get what you paid for.
There’s a Wide Price Range
Memory games for adults vary in price, from free apps you can download on your phone like Elevate to full-fledged programs for purchase, like Lumosity. No matter your budget, you will find cognitive tools that claim to enhance your memory and increase your mental capabilities.
Natural methods like diet, exercise and consistent socialization with others have been proven to boost cognitive abilities. These lifestyle choices are easy and inexpensive to implement and improve much more than just brain health.
The Bottom Line
While brain games may not completely restore your memory or other cognitive abilities, there is no harm in playing them (except perhaps on your wallet). The key is to stay physically and mentally active to prevent decline and memory loss, no matter how you choose to do so. Read a book, play an instrument, volunteer, join a club or use your Lumosity subscription. Whatever you do, as long as you are using your memory, you will keep it active and promote stimulation.
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