Nearly 70 scientists have issued a statement saying they’re skeptical about claims that computer-based “brain games” actually help older adults sharpen their mental powers .
Laura Carstensen , a Stanford University psychology professor and the director of the Center for Longevity , says that as baby boomers enter their golden years , commercial companies are all too often promising quick fixes for cognition problems through products that are unlikely to produce broad improvements in everyday functioning .
“It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products ,” she says. “But in the case of brain games , companies also assert that the products are based on solid scientific evidence developed by cognitive scientists and neuroscientists .
“So we felt compelled to issue a statement directly to the public .”
One problem is that while brain games may target very specific cognitive abilities , there is very little evidence that improvements transfer to more complex skills that really matter , like thinking , problem solving and planning , according to the scholars .
NO MAGIC BULLET
While it is true that the human mind is malleable throughout a lifetime , improvement on a single task—like playing computer-based brain games—does not imply a general , all-around and deeper improvement in cognition beyond performing better on just a particular game .
“Often , the cited research is only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company , and to the games they sell ,” says Carstensen .
Agreeing with this view were the experts who signed the Stanford-Planck consensus statement, which reads in part :
“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 . . . . The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date , which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy , engaged lifestyles .”
LIFESTYLE MATTERS MORE
As the researchers point out, the time spent on computer games takes away from other activities like reading , socializing , gardening , and exercising that may benefit cognitive functions .
“When researchers follow people across their lives , they find that those who live cognitively active , socially connected lives and maintain healthy lifestyles are less likely to suffer debilitating illness and early cognitive decline ,” as the statement describes it .
“In psychology ,” the scientists note , “it is good scientific practice to combine information provided by many tasks to generate an overall index representing a given ability .”
The same standards should be applied to the brain game industry , the experts maintain . But this has not been the case , they add .
“To date , there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities , or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life ,” the participants state .
One reason is the so-called “ file drawer effect ,” which refers to the practice of researchers filing away studies with negative outcomes . For example , brain game studies proclaiming even modest positive results are more likely to be published, cited, and publicized than ones that do not produce those affirming results .