Countless technological “brain fitness” programs promise (or hint at promising) improved cognitive performance in the face of dementia. A recent article in The Gerontologist argues that the growing marketplace for such “brain technologies” oversimplifies dementia and misrepresents what science can tell us about cognition and the brain. The article does not discount the potential usefulness of brain fitness technologies, yet identifies current limitations to such products, and argues that a broader perspective on brain health would do more to encourage cognitive well-being.
The article states that brain fitness marketing tends to represent the brain as a separate entity—one that requires specific, focused attention in isolation from other parts of the body. The authors point out that science has identified the important connections between other parts of the body and brain function, for example, the role of heart and vascular health in cognitive health. The authors contrast participation in a fitness class, which offers “brain fitness” through physical activity and social participation, with the more narrow potential benefits of playing a “brain game” alone at a computer.
Although there are studies that have shown modest benefits for older adults, most brain fitness products have not been rigorously evaluated. While studies on brain fitness programs have found short-term benefits on a few targeted cognitive skills, the real-world value of such programs has yet to be demonstrated. Meta-analyses of brain fitness programs have found no evidence that these products can delay, slow, or reverse cognitive decline. It is unclear whether these products are more beneficial than other interventions.
In conclusion, the article asserts that further research on brain fitness products is needed, but worthwhile. Intergenerational and other group activities that utilize brain fitness programs may be useful in encouraging computer skills and some social activity, however, it is important to consider the broader picture of brain health. To stay healthy, both the brain and body need physical and social activity, and local community involvement is necessary to meaningfully engage older adults in this way.