With people worldwide living longer, marketers are seizing on every opportunity to sell remedies and devices that they claim can enhance memory and other cognitive functions and perhaps stave off dementia as people age.
Among them are “all-natural” herbal supplements like Luminene, with ingredients that include the antioxidant alpha lipoic acid, the purported brain stimulant ginkgo biloba, and huperzine A, said to increase levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine; brain-training games on computers and smartphones; and all manner of puzzles, including crosswords, sudoku and jigsaw, that give the brain a workout, albeit a sedentary one.
Unfortunately, few such potions and gizmos have been proven to have a meaningful, sustainable benefit beyond lining the pockets of their sellers. Before you invest in them, you’d be wise to look for well-designed, placebo-controlled studies that attest to their ability to promote a youthful memory and other cognitive functions.
Even the widely acclaimed value of doing crossword puzzles has been called into question, beyond its unmistakable benefit to one’s font of miscellaneous knowledge. Although there is some evidence that doing crosswords may help to delay memory decline, Molly Wagster, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging, said they are best done for personal pleasure, not brain health. “People who have done puzzles all their lives have no particular cognitive advantage over anyone else,” she said.
The institute is one of several scientific organizations sponsoring rigorous trials of ways to cash in on the brain’s lifelong ability to generate new cells and connections. One such trial, Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, or Active, was a 10-year follow-up study of 2,832 cognitively healthy community-dwelling adults 65 and older.
Participants were divided into four groups and randomly assigned to one of three 10-session training programs — for memory, reasoning and speed of processing — or to a no-treatment control group, with an additional four booster training sessions 11 and 35 months later.
A decade later, at an average age of 82, 60 percent of those in the training programs, compared with 50 percent of the controls, had maintained or improved their ability to perform activities of daily living. All also had improved their respective trained functions. Those in the reasoning and speed-of-processing groups retained those benefits 10 years later, but the effects of memory training were ultimately lost.
While these results are hardly dramatic, given the aging population, even small benefits from training programs can greatly increase the number of older people who remain able to live on their own and enjoy life. Dr. Wagster suggested that such programs could be conducted at senior centers, Y.M.C.A.s, churches, temples and other venues that house community events.
There is also research-based evidence that certain computer games can improve cognitive skills in older people. Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and his colleagues demonstrated that a computer game called NeuroRacer enhanced the ability to multitask, a facility that typically declines with age. NeuroRacer requires players to steer a car on a winding, hilly road with the left thumb while watching for signs that randomly pop up and have to be shot down with a right-hand finger.
Participants aged 60 to 85 who trained on the game for four weeks improved their ability to focus well enough to outscore untrained 20-year-olds, and they maintained the benefit for at least six months. Effects of the training transferred to other cognitive skills known to decline with age: sustained attention, divided attention and working memory, the researchers reported in the journal Nature. In addition, physical evidence of the benefit was demonstrated with electroencephalograph measurements of brain activity that indicate cognitive control.
Nonetheless, Dr. Gazzaley cautioned against assuming that video games are “a guaranteed panacea” for cognitive decline.In a systematic review of studies involving cognitive training of older adults using computerized programs, including many who had no prior experience with video games or computers, researchers at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health reported that cognitively healthy people 55 and older did not have to be “technologically savvy in order to successfully complete or benefit from training.” The researchers found the results to be as good as or better — and less labor-intensive — than more traditional pencil-and-paper training programs.
Although it is commonly thought that older adults do not enjoy learning to use new technology, the researchers noted that the older adults who completed the computerized training programs “were positive” about the experience.
They pointed out that with a growing number of older adults having computers and access to the Internet, “cognitive training programs need to take fuller advantage of these outlets to improve cognitive function and delay cognitive decline in later life.” However, the team also called for more and larger “well-designed randomized controlled trials” to confirm their findings.
The Institute of Medicine has cautioned consumers to beware of phony or poorly tested products that claim to “prevent, slow or reverse the effects of cognitive aging.” Consumers should ask: Was the product shown to improve “performance on real-world tasks”? Are the claims supported by “high-quality research” that has been “independently verified”? And, most important, how do the supposed benefits compare with those from actions like physical activity and social and intellectual engagement?
In addition to engaging in daily physical exercise, consuming a heart-healthy diet (including dark chocolate!) and trying to get seven hours of sleep a night, my own memory enhancing strategies include addressing people by name every time I see them and dialing frequently called phone numbers from memory rather than using speed dial.
But I also take practical measures to avoid memory lapses: I keep a running shopping list; post to-do notes in the kitchen where I can’t miss them; record all appointments, with audible alerts, on my smartphone and computer; and maintain a can’t-miss tickle file of upcoming events in date order, with the dates written in large red numbers.
Courtesy: NY Times