To help create the best brain games for those over 50, researchers at Queen's University in Belfast came up with an ingenious idea: Offer a free, downloadable app of four mini brain games and ask participants to rank just how enjoyable, challenging or frustrating each game is to play.
People who download the iPhone app — dubbed Brain Jog — are asked to be part of the university's ongoing study into what over-50s are looking for in an ideal brain training app. Participation is optional. Those who agree are asked to rate their experience after playing each of the games.
Part of the reason for the interest in brain-game development is the field's explosive growth over the past five years.
In 2005, Americans spent $5 million on games and puzzles to enhance so-called brain fitness. Last year that amount had jumped to $95 million, according to SharpBrains, a Washington, D.C., research firm specializing in the brain fitness market.
"Five years ago, this industry didn't even exist," says Alvaro Fernandez, CEO of SharpBrains. "It still has a lot of room to grow."
He calls using an app to conduct game research "a brilliant idea." He explains that the Irish researchers chose an iPhone app over an Internet website "because in Europe, especially for older adults, they don't own a computer, but they have a cellphone."
While some research has indicated that brain games only help people perform better on specific games and don't really improve overall cognitive functioning, O'Brien says that longer studies are needed.
"By following participants over long time periods will we know whether or not brain training can be effective in preventing or delaying the onset of cognitive decline or dementia? That is the question the next stage of our research hopes to answer."
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Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the Bulletin.