Does memorizing a long list of pizza orders, matching a set of moving symbols or shooting birds in online games really mean you’re improving the health of your brain?
Not so much, according to the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), which has issued new recommendations on what consumers can do to help their minds stay sharp.
GCBH researchers say the evidence that “brain games” can maintain and improve brain health is “weak to nonexistent . These games can be fun and engaging,’’ the new report says. “But often, the claims made by companies touting the benefits of these games are exaggerated.”
Brain games have exploded on the digital scene in recent years and are trending strong. SharpBrains, a leading market researcher, estimates that the digital brain game market will reach $1 billion by the end of this year and grow to $6 billion by 2020.
But in its new report, the GCBH, an independent and international group of scientists sponsored by AARP, instead suggests a number of proven ways that people can support and maintain their memory, reasoning skills and ability to focus as they age.
“We know that the desire to stay mentally sharp is the No. 1 concern for older adults,’’ says Sarah Lock, AARP senior vice president for policy and executive director of the GCBH. “Seeking out brain-stimulating activities is a powerful way for a person to positively influence their brain health as they age.”
The researchers also point out one important bottom line when it comes to enhancing the way people think and process information: There is no miracle cure to guarantee brain health.
But people can help themselves maintain their memory, reasoning skills and ability to focus by engaging in such brain-stimulating activities as learning a new language, building new personal relationships, volunteering in the community, taking a class or choosing a new hobby.
Physical exercise also has been shown to improve brain health in adults. Researchers suggest activities such as dancing or tennis, both of which marry mental engagement with physical exertion.
The group’s recommendations also encourage people to find a friend to join them in these activities and to choose options that are easily accessible and convenient to their schedules.
What all of these activities should have in common, researchers say, is that they are novel, highly engaging, mentally challenging and fun.
“The GCBH recommends people incorporate cognitively stimulating activities into their lifestyle to help maintain their brain health as they age,” says Marilyn Albert, chair of GBCH and director of the Division of Cognitive Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The sooner you start, the better because what you do now may make you less susceptible to disease-related brain changes later in life.”
The GCBH report also debunks many of the myths surrounding the brain, including such fallacies as older people are doomed to forget things or dementia is an inevitable byproduct of aging.
No matter what the age, researchers say, people can learn new things.