Why Brain Training Games Don't Work

For anyone who has lost his or her keys and feared cognitive decline, online brain training offers a fun solution: Play games on your electronic device and stave off dementia. But can these games actually improve cognitive function and memory? The Federal Trade Commission says no, and it’s taking steps to stop game companies from marketing these unfounded claims.

“When you use these games, you may see improvements in how well you play those games. Unfortunately, the benefit has not been shown to improve memory or thinking in general. This means that, at least as of now, the benefits will not generalize to other activities in your life,” says Peter V. Rabins, M.D., a professor at the Erickson School of Aging, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and founding director of geriatric psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “There’s little evidence that playing brain-training games improves overall cognitive ability.”

In January 2016 the FTC settled charges of deceptive advertising with Luma Labs, the makers of the online brain-training website Lumosity, which will refund $2 million to its subscribers. The investigation is part of a larger effort to protect consumers from misleading health advertising. According to a December article in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (JAGS), studies have shown that improvement in game playing doesn’t translate to real-life benefits, and the typical time spent training isn’t enough cognitive exertion to prevent or delay dementia. “Spending even 100 hours playing brain games isn’t enough to build cognitive capacity,” Rabins says.

In addition, the JAGS authors noted that time spent playing such games is time not spent doing activities that actually provide health benefits, such as exercising or enjoying time with friends. The authors were concerned that people with dementia would blame themselves for failing to enroll in a brain exercise program that might have forestalled or prevented cognitive decline, further stigmatizing and traumatizing those affected. Other people might be led to believe that cognitive performance would improve with a program.

To stay sharp, concentrate instead on making lifestyle changes, such as exercising regularly and eating a heart-healthy diet emphasizing vegetables and whole grains, and staying connected socially.