Brain Push-Ups to Prevent Memory Loss

We all worry as we grow older about having "senior moments" that last more than a moment. That's why memory training and brain-training programs have become a big business. Can memory training really "improve memory by 10 years" and prevent age-related cognitive decline and even dementia, as the programs claim?

Use Your Memory or Lose It, Maybe

Observational studies have consistently found that people with an active life—mentally, physically and socially—tend to be healthier and have a lower risk of mental decline and dementia as they age. No surprise there. But determining cause and effect is hard. Though researchers try to adjust for this in their studies, it could be that people who are mentally and physically healthy are better able to stay active.

Older Man and Boy Reading - Masterfile Image

A few years ago, one of the biggest and best randomized trials (called ACTIVE), sponsored by the National Institute of Aging, found that five weeks of a cognitive-training program helped older adults boost specific memory and problem-solving skills. The improvements were limited to the abilities trained, but did persist for five years, albeit modestly.

A 2011 Cochrane review of 36 studies found that people with mild cognitive impairment who undertook memory training, mostly group sessions with teachers, improved specific skills, but no more than people mentally active in other ways, such as those taking educational classes.

Despite some promising leads, as well as lots of wishful thinking and sales pitches for various programs, the research remains in its early stages.

Mind Games to Improve Memory

Many experts believe that simply doing activities that challenge your cognitive capabilities can help keep you sharp. There’s little doubt that learning a foreign language, playing bridge or chess, or solving puzzles (like Sudoku) is better for your brain than staring mindlessly at the TV. Several studies have found that even video action games can improve certain types of memory and other cognitive skills.

Other research suggests that commercial brain-training programs—often computer-based—target key cognitive skills better than, say, puzzles or classwork. These range from game-like products such as Nintendo's Brain Age to expensive software such as Posit Science's Brain Fitness Program.

Proving that mental workouts produce significant cognitive benefits in older people is difficult, largely because so many variables are involved. It's much easier to do long-term clinical trials on drugs for dementia, for example (which, by the way, have not proven to be very effective).

And even when studies on the formal programs—usually sponsored by the companies that market them—find short-term improvements in some kinds of mental performance, so far no one knows if these translate into less overall cognitive decline long term or a reduced risk of dementia.

One difference between "natural" training (puzzles, games, learning new skills) and formal programs is that the former are complex tasks using everything from memory to visual attention, while formal programs tend to segregate the different tasks and skills. Formal programs may allow you to improve highly specific mental skills more easily, but you may not retain them as well as you would from a more natural process.

Even when you benefit from one kind of training, there may be no carry-over to other kinds of mental endeavors. For example, doing crossword puzzles, no matter how expert you become, may not help you remember names or balance your checkbook. That is, working on a brain-fitness program may not provide benefits beyond the particular skills learned.

What's more, people who start out at high levels may profit more from the training. Those who already have cognitive problems may not benefit or may simply become discouraged. And, of course, we all know of people who developed Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia who were highly educated and mentally active.

Benefits of Staying Mentally Active

Even if it doesn't reduce the risk of dementia, staying mentally active may delay its onset or slow its progression. Stimulating your brain can also enrich your life, banish boredom, help prevent or treat depression and be a way to make new friends.

You don't need to invest in special games or training programs. Just do something challenging that you enjoy, so you'll keep at it. You may find formal brain-training programs repetitive and boring, similar to being forced to run on a treadmill when you'd rather be hiking in the woods. Learning a new skill (such as a foreign language), taking classes in art history, playing strategic board or card games or doing volunteer work can be rewarding and fun as well as provide a sense of accomplishment.

If such endeavors also confer long-term mental benefits that stave off cognitive decline, so much the better. Other steps to keep in mind: Physical exercise, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, maintaining a healthy weight, preventing/controlling diabetes, treating depression, drinking alcohol in moderation (if at all) and having a heart-healthy diet are all good bets for brain health. In general, what's good for your cardiovascular system is good for your brain.

Social Activity: A "Family and Friends" Plan

Mental exercise and physical activity may be good for the brain, but just being socially active also helps older people maintain cognitive abilities and may reduce the risk of dementia, according to a recent study from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Many studies have found that social activity is beneficial, but there have been lingering questions about cause and effect. That is, perhaps cognitive decline causes social isolation, not the reverse. After all, as memory and thinking start to fail, socializing becomes hard. Perhaps measures of social activity are just markers for mental and physical exercise.

It's the social activity itself, and the complex interpersonal exchanges it entails, that helps people stay sharp, the researchers concluded. They followed more than 1,100 older people for up to 12 years, testing them periodically. The most socially active people had only 25 percent the rate of cognitive decline, compared to the least social. When the researchers re-analyzed the data to weed out people with the lowest level of cognitive function, and took other steps to rule out "reverse causation," the findings still held up. They also found that social activity was beneficial independent of physical activity and other factors related to brain function, such as age and overall health.

Source: Originally published in The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter (October 2011)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 14 Sep 2011

Last Modified: 28 Jan 2015