In an editorial this month, Nature Neuroscience takes a critical look at video games (like Brain Age) that purport to “keep aging brains sharper.” According to the article, the jury is still out on electronic elixirs (emphasis mine):

Mental exercise games are being claimed to slow brain aging, but the evidence for this idea is not yet conclusive. Earlier this year, Nintendo launched the American version of a game for seniors called “Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day.” Developed in collaboration with Japanese neurologist Ryuta Kawashima, this game is based on the idea that regular mental exercises—such as Sudoku puzzles, Stroop tasks and simple math problems—can keep aging brains sharper. Similar games are being developed by other companies intent on capturing this new market. Radica, a subsidiary of Mattel, is releasing “Brain Games,” word and memory games based on research at the University of California at Los Angeles Center of Aging. Another company, MindFit, is also marketing cognitive training games for seniors, citing extensive evidence for the ‘use it or lose it’ theory of cognitive decline with aging. Despite the marketing hype, there is no conclusive evidence that mental games alone slow brain aging.

After reading the entire piece, I felt that the lead paragraph may be a bit too harsh. The preponderance of evidence cited by the editors suggests that mental training at any age is beneficial for cognitive function and related psychological corollaries, like confidence that one is performing a task correctly. The editors appear to be particularly hung up on the question of whether these specific video games are capable of slowing age-related cognitive decline. Quite defensibly, they point out that the proof would be hard to come by:

Generalizing from these studies is difficult. Does solving crossword puzzles or doing auditory discriminatory tasks improve real-life tasks and independent living? At every age, cognitive performance varies substantially among individuals. Some variability in cognitive ability during aging may be present at earlier ages as well and thus may not relate to differential aging. The ideal way to test this hypothesis is in a randomized clinical trial, carefully controlled to show that individuals who start out at the same mental level show a shallower rate of age-related decline with greater mental stimulation relative to their peers who have less mental stimulation. Such studies are almost impossible to do, because people would have to maintain an assigned lifestyle for much of their lives.

This is a long way from saying that the games are useless. The critique is mostly just a standard scientific caution that more study is required — and, furthermore, that the ideal studies would be both difficult to perform and hard to interpret if they were ever completed.

As the editors themselves conclude, it can’t be a bad idea to keep active in a variety of different ways as we age, but they lean toward more conventional (and less expensive) methods such as regular exercise, maintaining a robust social life (not exactly consistent with a lot of time spent in the den gripping a joystick), and reading.

Cashing in one’s IRA to buy a Wii, in their view, might be premature.

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