Exposing Brain Fitness Misconceptions

News & Blog

Stay up to date on what’s going on in the world of enhancing life in senior care.

Exposing Brain Fitness Misconceptions

Posted on July 8, 2009

As people age, their physical and mental states tend to show loss of performance. Physical function declines are usually easier to diagnose and treat; when it comes to the brain, it is a very different problem. Cognitive impairment is something that a lot of people claim to have the solution for although it is a very new and uncharted area of medical science. According to Dr. Denise Park, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, the memory, one of the prominent brain function, is among the least understood areas of neuroscience and medical science in general.

A recent article of the New York Times describes how a panel of 30 experts from the United States and Europe recently issued a consensus statement on what we do know about maintaining brain fitness (which includes not only memory, but also reasoning, attention and speed of processing). The verdict was that three things are crucial: physical exercise, mental challenges and good health habits in general.
When it comes to the brain exercise solutions that are available, it seems that most improve performance only on the games themselves, not mental function in general according to Dr. Laura Carstensen, director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University. The Scienfitic American recently published an article in which neuroscientist Peter Snyder of Brown University reviewed nearly 20 software studies and concluded that, as a group, they were underwhelming. Those studies are marred by flaws that induce confounding factors, such as a lack of control groups and follow-up, Snyder warns.
This doesn’t mean that the brain cannot be trained and maintained by good practices: as neuroscientists like to say, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain: Exercise and good health habits in general tend to help greatly. This argument is also strong in the work led by neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg : Debunking 10 Brain Training/ Cognitive Health Myths where a multi-pronged approach is recommended, centered around nutrition, stress management, and both physical and mental exercise. Goldberg also emphasize the fact that the concept of “Brain age” is a fiction. No two individuals have the same brain or expression of brain functions and nothing suggests that the “age” can be reverted in any ways.

The idea that the brain is a use-it-or-lose-it type of organ as a whole is a myth. This organ is complex and is composed of a number of specialized units. This is why learning a new skill or being exposed to something new and diverse for a prolonged period of time helps mental improvement; In short, engage in many types of mental activity. “If you want lots of improvement, you have to do mental cross-training,” says Dr. K. Warner Schaie, a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University.
The best memory enhancer is exercise, Snyder says. Secondarily, a good diet and an active social life have brain benefits. Does software improve on those standbys, he asks? “Frankly, I have my doubts. The evidence isn’t in.”