Does brain training work?
There are 10 million new cases of dementia every year, with most from Alzheimer’s disease. 200,000 of those affect young people.
I have a vested interest in defending my own mind, so I asked two brain researchers and authors for the answer.
My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease. The only good thing I can say about it is she never lost her sense of humor.
She’d say, “Are you Irish?”
I’d say, “Half.”
“What’s the other half?”
“Oh, God help you.”
Since her death, my own lapses terrify me. I’ll forget a friend’s name, an actor’s, or where I put the car keys. Once at a restaurant I got up to wash my hands and ran into a friend. “Who are you eating with?” she asked. My face and neck went hot as I realized I couldn’t name everybody at the table.
Then there’s Ronald Reagan’s journey from telling a friend, “My mind’s playing tricks on me” to a confused death a few years later. Or CBS news correspondent Jan Petersen, struck down by early-onset Alzheimer’s at the peak of her career.
And now here’s me with two young kids. Will I remember them in ten years? Twenty?
It’s enough to keep you up at night. But there’s encouraging science, and surprisingly a lot of hope.
Does Brain Training Work?
“I can tell you with confidence,” Dr. Whalley says, “that the benefits of brain training extend only as far as improved scores on mental tests.”
In other words, if you do brain games, you get better at doing brain games.
However, there is evidence that those who stay intellectually and socially active get dementia later.
From there, says Dr. Whalley, “People have speculated that you can slow the onset of dementia by becoming active. Well that’s a leap.”
Claiming brain training slows dementia because intellectually active people get it later is fudging it.
“There’s a lot of snake oil out there,” says Dr. Whalley.
Still, he doesn’t discount brain training whole-cloth. On its own, it won’t stop the progression of dementia. But in combination with other interventions, it forms part of a useful package.
But—and there’s a huge “but.”
A Significant Drop in Dementia
Over the past 20 years, several large, exciting studies have shown a roughly 20% drop in dementia around the world. The first was the massive health and retirement study in the United States.
Researchers followed 45,000 people as they aged. They found a big decline in age-related dementia.
What’s causing the sea change? Researchers think it’s our generally improving economy, education, and health. We’re more educated and better informed. We have better medications that help our overall outlook.
That’s not to say we only have to kick back and watch from the sidelines as things get sunnier.
“Even a 20% decline will not reduce dementia prevalence for almost 40 years,” says Dr. Whalley.
Worse, the number of cases will ramp up quickly as the baby boomers age.
So, how can you make sure you’re in that lucky, growing group whose brains stay healthy longer?
Dr. Timothy Jennings lays out a plan in his book, The Aging Brain: Proven Steps to Prevent Dementia and Sharpen Your Mind.
It all comes down to what causes Alzheimer’s and dementia in the first place.
What Causes Dementia?
Insulin helps our brain cells toss out waste products. When insulin resistance starts, our brains can’t clear those wastes as well. That can cause what Dr. Jennings calls a cascade of changes that damage and kill our neurons and lead us down the slippery slope to cognitive decline.
So—what causes insulin resistance?
“Well it’s the same thing that causes insulin resistance in diabetes type II,” says Dr. Jennings.
In other words, anything that increases inflammation in the body:
- Fast Food
- Lack of Exercise
- Sedentary Lifestyle
- Chronic Mental Stress
Those things activate your immune system, which triggers the inflammatory process. It follows that removing them can cut dementia risk.
Manage Your Blood Pressure
If you want to keep your brain healthy, keep your body healthy.
You probably already get regular health checkups and manage your blood pressure. That’s not just good for your heart. Several long-term studies show keeping blood pressure and cholesterol at bay fights cognitive decline.
“It happens that your brain also benefits if you look to your heart,” says Dr. Whalley.
One large long-term study of 16,000 participants showed people with high blood pressure have more dementia risk. Managing blood pressure is one of the most impactful brain-healthy choices you can make.
Get Regular Physical Exercise
“If you exercise regularly,” says Dr. Jennings, “you turn on all the various neurotrophins. Those are proteins in your brain that make neurons grow strong and sprout new connections.”
A study by the University of Washington found people with Alzheimer’s genes had less tau protein in their brains and didn’t progress to dementia if they had a history of exercise.
It’s not a bad thing that exercise also helps your heart.
Conflict resolution, resolving guilt and hostility, and dropping old grudges may actually prevent dementia.
“All that stuff keeps you stressed out,” says Dr. Jennings. “It activates inflammation.”
Stress elevates your levels of cortisol—the stress hormone. High cortisol levels can damage your brain cells and the connections between them.
By contrast, a 30-year study showed that those with lower stress levels saw less dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Get 7 ½ Hours of Sleep
Sleep is crucial in the fight against dementia. During sleep, your neurons contract and expel the waste built up throughout the day.
“So if you’re chronically getting less than 7 ½ hours of sleep,” says Dr. Jennings, “you’re not clearing all these waste products.”
That means 30% of Americans are putting themselves at risk.
But can you just take a sleeping pill? No. Many sleep-promoting drugs interfere chemically with memory consolidation. They actually cause memory problems.
Practice Daily Mindfulness Meditation
Isn’t meditation something beautiful people do in ads with half smiles and lidded eyes? To cut the mumbo-jumbo from what was originally intended as a practical, healthy habit, no.
Meditation at its core is nothing more than feeling emotions without letting them turn into a waterfall of words. For most of us, our inner dialogue runs in the background constantly, like a TV set left on in the other room. Any machine that revs all day without a break like that eventually overheats.
A growing body of research points to daily meditation as a way to shield the brain against Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Want to start meditating? Try the excellent meditation book for beginners, Making Space by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
An anti-inflammatory diet, whole food, vegan, or Mediterranean diet may fight dementia.
“Those have been shown in various studies to correlate with better brain volume and cognitive and memory performance than the typical American diet,” Dr. Jennings says.
Why? Fast food causes inflammation.
“Studies show that people who eat fast food and junk food have a 60 percent higher rate of depression than people who don’t,” says Jennings.
That's because inflammation also drives depression. People with higher depression rates have higher dementia risk too.
Get Enough B Vitamins
Vitamin B12 (from fish, meat, eggs, and milk) and folic acid (from leafy greens) may fight dementia by reducing homocysteine levels.
“If you can lower homocysteine,” says Dr. Whalley, “you’ll reduce the risk of dementia.”
According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, people with higher levels of this protein saw nearly twice the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Cutting it with folic acid forms a valuable piece of our dementia shield.
Yep, Train Your Brain
Brain training won’t stave off Alzheimer’s or dementia. But it can help you build a more robust brain. In other words, the bigger and tougher your mental house, the longer it may take the demolition guys to tear it down.
But are brain games the best way?
Learning a new language, learning to paint or play an instrument, or picking up any new skill may be a brainier bet.
First, they’re more fun than jumping through a lot of artificial mental hoops. Second, they keep you socially active too. That’s exciting, since avoiding loneliness may fight dementia also.
Brush Your Teeth and Get Regular Dental Checkups
Unhealthy gums leave one more door open for dementia to slip through. People who get regular dental checkups and brush twice a day have less dementia than those who don’t.
Why would that be? According to Dr. Jennings, unhealthy teeth and gums increase your inflammation risk. More inflammation means more chance to get dementia.
Staying active has definite positive effects on the brain. A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association says staying active socially and intellectually cuts dementia risk.
For a personal anecdote, my “Uncle” Bill is 98 and basically the poster-child for staying active.
In his career he was a genius. (He’s not actually related to me, so I can’t claim any of it rubbed off.) As the chief engineer for MITRE corporation in the 1970s, he led the team that built NASA’s advanced Space Shuttle computer system.
One day he showed me a beautiful wooden kayak he’d created. When I asked if he would make another, he said no.
He explained he could have bought one cheaper, with less hassle. But he was after the effect the learning process would have on his brain.
“If you’re always learning something new,” he said, “your brain stays young.”
At 98, I can’t argue.
Clearly there’s a lot of ground for optimism. First, we can take heart that our generally improving quality of life, education, and medical system are fighting cognitive decline on our behalf.
Second, we can choose an anti-inflammatory diet, exercise, meditate, get the right amount of sleep, take folic acid—and yes, even train our brains.
“I think the evidence is very strong that Alzheimer’s is preventable,” says Dr. Jennings.
That’s a ray of hope amid the torrent of bad news.
So, what do you think?
Do you know of other ways to help improve memory? What techniques have you been using so far? Or perhaps you think it's too early to worry? Give us a shout in the comments. Let's chat!