The older we get, the more prone we become to a variety of mental disabilities. The World Health Organization estimates that over 20% of adults aged 60 suffer from some type of mental or neurological disorder. The most common are dementia and depression. Dementia itself is an umbrella term for a range of symptoms that impair memory and thinking. The most well-known cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s, although other common causes include Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
We may think that these neurological disorders are the natural decline of a person’s mental faculties as they grow older, but there are many external influences as well. Life stress is a major contributor, and it can be easily overlooked how much stress the elderly need to cope with. Elderly persons often need to deal with the awareness of losing certain capacities and functions, as well as chronic pains and loss of mobility as the body natural ages.
The very idea of “aging” can be a stress factor, but then you include things such as bereavement (41% of American women older than 65 are widowed), and a potential drop in socioeconomic status due to retirement. So overall, its important to remember that dementia symptoms are not simply a natural decline of the mental faculties, but can also be largely influenced by a number of stress factors that the elderly must cope with.
Currently, there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s, and no way to slow its progression. Whether or not Alzheimer’s is preventable is up in the air – as we mentioned, dementia symptoms can be onset by stress factors, and there are numerous risk factors for Alzheimer’s. These include diabetes, mid-life hypertension, mid-life obesity, physical inactivity, depression, smoking, and low educational attainment. Thus, experts suggest that one in three Alzheimer’s cases may be preventable with certain lifestyle changes.
“The two biggest misconceptions are “It’s just aging” and “It’s untreatable, so we should just leave the person alone.”
-Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, “Can Alzheimer’s Be Cured“
Why Scientists are Divided on Brain Games
One common misconception is that brain-training games are a sure-fire method to combat dementia. This is partially true – there’s very little brain games can offer once dementia has set in. However, a large part of the battle against dementia is prevention. Thus, brain games are a great method to stimulate the mind, forming new neuro-connections, and benchmarking whether dementia is setting in. For example, if an elderly person notices their daily brain-game puzzles are becoming more difficult to solve (and not due to any sort of in-game difficulty), it’s a good sign that something should be checked out.
There have been many studies into the subject, which we’ll dive into shortly. The main point to remember is that brain-training games are a preventative measure, not a treatment.
Brain games can offer stress relief, and provide an outlet for creative mental energy. It’s the old adage that the brain is a muscle, and needs to be exercised like the rest of our body. Thus, when we keep our minds active on a daily basis, our cognitive abilities are far less likely to decline.
This is really all a bit of a controversial subject, to be quite clear. There are studied that promote the validity of brain games as a way to reduce the risk of dementia, and studies that find no correlation whatsoever. Study results also appear to be influenced by the types of games being utilized.
As an example, Lumos Labs, a well-known San Francisco based brain-game company, was fined $2 million USD by the US Federal Trade Commission, for false advertising. Lumos Labs had made the advertisement claims that their brain-training games could reduce the effects of dementia, and combat dementia-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
One study at the University of Pennsylvania, with a research team led by Joseph Kable, put Lumos Labs various brain-training games to the test against a handful of regular computer games. They recruited 128 young adults for a controlled trial. The volunteers were split into three groups – one group using Lumos Labs brain games, the other group playing regular computer games, for a period of 10 weeks. The third group played nothing.
Before the study began, all three groups were given standard cognitive tests. At the end of the study, it was found that all three groups performed better on a second round of cognitive tests – which means that playing Lumos Labs’ games, regular computer games, or no games at all had pretty much no bearing on the second round of test results. The study subjects most likely performed better on the second set of cognitive tests, due to having already done them before (practice makes perfect?).
Of course, as we said, studies involving research into the effects of brain-training games on dementia symptoms pretty often have conflicting results. For example, two groups of scientists in 2014 published separate letters on the efficacy of brain-training games for dementia. The first group of 70 scientists claimed that there is no scientific basis for the belief that brain games will improve cognitive function, or combat cognitive decline.
The second group of 133 scientists countered their letter. Of course, science is all about being able to prove theories, so its no surprise that two groups of scientists would have differing opinions. But one possible reason for this particular disagreement is the standards utilized when evaluating evidence.
So, as you can see, the debate goes pretty deep. What we can gather from the available research, is that many brain-training games do not offer the proper type of “brain training” that is most effective in combatting the onset of dementia symptoms. To understand this, we need to understand the exact scientific causes of dementia.
The Exact Science Behind Dementia in Alzheimer’s
Our brains have trillions of neural synapses, which are connection points where information flows through our brains. Imagine entire spider webs of these neural connections in our brains, information flowing and crossing between them (at the synapse points) at the speed of light.
We also produce a solitary molecule called amyloid beta – its life begins as a solitary molecule, but over time, these molecules begin to group together. These clusters of amyloid betas begin to travel freely through the brain, but over time, they become plaque that binds to receptors on nerve cells.
We also produce glial cells, which are like janitors for our neural pathways. Their duty is to clean up injuries to our neuron pathways. However, amyloid beta seems to send these glial cells into overdrive, causing them to work much harder. The glial cells end up working so hard, they actually assist in the degradation of our neural synapses by overcleaning them, eventually eroding the neural synapses altogether. Microglia basically devours our neural synapses. It’s like a janitor that scrubs graffiti off a wall so hard, he ends up scrubbing a hole right through the wall.
Now, even though amyloid beta production is fairly natural, there are ways we unwittingly speed up the production process and harm ourselves. For example, scientists found that a single night of sleep deprivation can lead to an increase in amyloid beta production. The increase is amyloid beta production in turn makes it harder to fall asleep the next night, which actually creates a positive feedback loop (which, in this case, is not actually positive at all, in a beneficial sense).
Scientists also found a strong correlation between lack of cardiovascular-strengthening activity, and amyloid beta production. It’s been shown that a large percentage of Alzheimer’s patients also have some type of cardiovascular disease or deficiency. This is because our hearts are responsible for pumping blood through our circulatory system, which carries oxygen to the brain. Oxygen deprivation can have an enormous impact on the brain – for example, oxygen deprivation is the most common cause of mental retardation in newborn infants.
Thus, when our cardiovascular system is unable to pump sufficient oxygen to our brains, it plays a significant role in the degradation of our cognitive functions. For this reason, many doctors and scientists recommend a healthy, active lifestyle as a way to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases.
As an additional note, while genetics can play a strong role in the development of Alzheimer’s – having just one parent with Alzheimer’s can significantly increase your risk for Alzheimer’s – it is not a guarantee. The specific gene that is thought to be responsible for late Alzheimer’s onset is APOE4, or Apolipoprotein E. However, while APOE4 can contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s, it is not a direct cause.
This is because APOE4 belongs to an entire group of proteins which are related to the metabolism of fats in our body. Thus, there is a correlation between cholesterol and Alzheimer’s as well. So, for example, while Nigerians in fact have the highest observed frequency of the APOE4 gene, Alzheimer’s disease is actually rather rare amongst Nigerians. This is thought to be due to their low cholesterol levels (Source: Genetic studies of human apolipoproteins. X. The effect of the apolipoprotein E polymorphism on quantitative levels of lipoproteins in Nigerian blacks).
So, as you can see, there are a wide range of things that can contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia symptoms.
How Brain Games Can Help Prevent Dementia
As we said earlier, the dementia symptoms in Alzheimer’s are caused by the erosion of neural synapses. However, we are able to create new neural pathways through cognitive exercise. This is a delicate subject however.
The problem with many brain training games is that they do not target the proper cognitive developments needed to prevent the onset of dementia. We only form new neural synapses by learning new information – learning a new language, for example. Learning new ways to recall information. We do not form new neural synapses by studying or recalling information we already know.
This is why doing Crossword or Sudoku puzzles are largely ineffective in brain training, at least for developing new neural synapses. Yes, you are exercising your brain, to a degree. But you’re hitting a plateau. Imagine it like exercising the body. If you do the same exercise every day, like a set of 20 pull-ups each morning, the exercise will quickly lose its efficiency for building new muscle. It may help you maintain the muscles your arms and chest have already developed, but you will not be building new muscle. Thus, bodybuilders will target different muscle groups on certain days, or target the same muscle groups but with different types of exercises.
The same exact thing is happening in brain training games. It’s not enough to exercise the brain and do, for example, trivia games where you recall information you have already learned in the past. You must be learning new information in order to form new neural synapses.
One of the best examples of a particular study that concerns what we’re talking about is The Nun Study. It is a continuous study that began in 1986, led by David Snowdon at the University of Minnesota. The study was eventually moved to the University of Kentucky, but was moved back to the University of Minnesota with Snowdon’s retirement.
This particular study has yielded many findings in the area of Alzheimer’s, as it focuses on nuns, who are the ideal population for studying Alzheimer’s development. Thus, the study focuses on a group of over 600 American Roman Catholic nuns from the School Sisters of Notre Dame. These nuns do not use drugs, alcohol, and various other elements that could confuse variables found during research.
Researchers were able to find that over 80% of the nuns whose essays lacked linguistic density went on to develop Alzheimer’s. In the nuns with linguistic density in their writings, only 10% developed Alzheimer’s. One significant finding amongst this was that, while some of the nuns did in fact have all the prerequisites of Alzheimer’s, and they should have been suffering dementia symptoms, they in fact did not. This is attributed to having an excess of neural synapses.
So, while the nuns were losing existing neural synapses due to the relationship between amyloid beta and microglia we talked about earlier, their constant learning of new information had created enough new neural synapses to create a buffer against dementia.
What this basically means is that neural pathways are basically roads to retrieving information – when several roads become blocked due to neural synapse erosion, the information can take detours through other neural synapses, if we contain enough of them. Thus, constantly learning new information is of exceeding value when it comes to preventing dementia symptoms – even if we are already at risk for Alzheimer’s.
This is an important consideration for the prevention of dementia. Because it basically means that, while we may develop Alzheimer’s at late stages in life, the dementia symptoms may not affect us particularly bad if we build up enough neural synapses to counter the erosive damage being done to them. It’s like having $10 million USD. Even if somebody breaks into your house and robs you of $500 thousand, you still have $9.5 million USD.
The website Cognitive Training Data, maintained by Michael Merzenich, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Neurophysiology at the University of California San Francisco, and Chief Scientific Officer of Posit Science Corporation, is also worth researching. Cognitive Training Data attempts to help scientists, reporters, and consumers “navigate the many mixed messages on the field of computerized cognitive training”.
Cognitive Training Data offers a tremendous list of published studies that directly demonstrate the effects of computerized cognitive training on cognitive function.
So, when it comes to brain games, you should not focus on games that simply do memory exercises. You don’t want games that simply target the five cognitive functions: speed, memory, attention, flexibility, and problem-solving. Yes, it’s a good idea to supplement your brain training with those exercises, but it should not be the basis of your training. You need to focus on games that actively teach you new information.
Therein lies a small problem – because we can’t look at simple puzzle-based apps for effective dementia prevention, we need to think a bit outside the box and dig deeper. We need to look at video games that offer educational benefits. Of course, recommending video games for seniors sounds a bit silly. Can you imagine Grandpa Bob playing Assassin’s Creed: Origins because it imparts tons of historically accurate knowledge? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we need to imagine.
Of course, it’s not entirely far-fetched. A report titled “Gamers Over 50 Study: You’re Never Too Old to Play”, released by the ESA (Entertainment Software Association), found that 48% of polled adults over the age of 50 said they play video games.
Thus, we are going to attempt creating two categories of games for recommendation. Our first category will be brain training games that have cognitive benefits on the five cognitive functions. These are daily exercises that may have some benefit in exercising your brain. Our second category will be games that actually teach you new information – whether its historical, mathematical, creative, etc. Ideally, these two categories would be combined. Of course, this author is no scientist, so nothing I’m saying right now can be supported by research evidence, but I imagine that it would be most beneficial to perhaps spend 30 minutes a day on brain training puzzle games, and an hour or two a day on educational games.
Brain Games That Have Cognitive Benefits
Happy Neuron is another set of brain training games and activities. It also focuses on the 5 cognitive functions, a personalized training program based on your individual cognitive profile, and it has a wide range of available games. HAPPYneuron was founded by, and is based on the research of, a team of neurologists and neuroscientists, led by Chief Scientific Officer Bernard Croisile, M.D., PhD, who has published over 40 peer-reviewed papers in neuroscience and neurology.
Crosswords are a fun and challenging way of exercising your brain through verbal memory. Of course, crosswords come in all difficulties – for example, US (American) crosswords are infinitely easier than British-style crosswords. While American crosswords tend to focus on themes and simple questions (Tomato-based sauce put on hamburgers?), British crosswords can come in the fiendish ‘cryptic crosswords’ variety, which are true exercises in riddle and puzzle-solving.
The last title in the Brain Age series for Nintendo, Brain Age: Concentration Training was published on the Nintendo 3DS in 2013 for North America, but it took 5 years to be released for the European market. The Brain Age series of games are based on the works of Ryuta Kawashima (in fact, Brain Age in Japan is called Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training), a Japanese neuroscientist. There’s a range of activity games available, such as math problems, card matching, and other games that require concentration or memory.
Peak is a phone-based app which contains over 35 brain games. The games focus on areas such as memory, attention, math, problem solving, mental agility, language, coordination, and emotional control. Some of the cognitive brain training games were developed by expert researchers at institutes such as Cambridge University and NYU.
Yet another bundle of over 35 brain games, Elevate was chosen as the Apple App of the Year in 2014, and Google Editors’ Choice. It’s been downloaded over 15 million times since it was released. It was originally intended to be an SAT prep and language learning app, but the designer Jesse Pickard wanted his app to “help everyone in the world”. Elevate receives regular updates, and its highly reviewed by numerous news sources (CNET, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, etc.).
Fit Brains Trainer is an award-winning brain training and fitness app, which was originally published by Vivity Labs, before being acquired by Rosetta Stone. Rosetta Stone of course is best known for their language-learning software. The scientific aspect of Fit Brains Trainer is led by Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Paul Nussbaum, PhD, an American clinical neuropsychologist who has published numerous books and research papers on the brain and aging.
Cognito offers daily brain training missions that focus on memory, logic, puzzles, word games, and other cognitive functions. Like many of the apps on this list, Cognito offers a variety of brain training games and activities, but it ties them all together with a game-like storyline that involves secret agents and global spying missions. Cognito can also connect with Apple Health, to give you additional data on your performance results, such as how your daily exercise and sleeping patterns affect your cognitive scores.
Bookworm is like a cross between Scrabble and word search puzzles. You need to make words out of lettered tiles on a board – each time you clear letters, more drop in. Word scores are based on word length and difficulty, and there are several game modes to play.
The Room is a popular series of “escape the room” puzzle games, where you must piece together various clues and puzzles to move onto the next room. The games are literally just an almost endless progression of rooms, with each room becoming increasingly difficult. It requires sharp logic and memory to get through all the levels.
Dissembler is more of an abstract puzzle game, which focuses on flipping tiles to match color groups. Your task is to clear all the tiles from the board, and the puzzles become increasingly complex, to the point that strategic planning and lateral thinking becomes a must.
Brain It On is a fun series of physics-based puzzles which require you to draw on your screen to complete the puzzles. You’ll be given an objective like “flip the glass upside down”, and must draw an object that will fall down and set off the proper chain reaction of physics. There are numerous ways to approach and solve each puzzle, so it heightens your creative thinking as well as your strategic planning.
The classic match-3 game is still one of the most addicting experiences, especially with its spin-offs Bejeweled Twist and Bejeweled Blitz. It offers numerous game modes, such as Lightning Mode where you must match as many gems as possible in a minute, or Zen Mode where the game simply plays relaxing, meditative music and just play as long as you like.
If you’d like to train your brain and be competitive with friends, Words with Friends 2 is a sure bet. Its basically an online Scrabble-like game, with numerous gameplay modes. Scrabble is one of the best games for brain flexibility, memory, and vocabulary expansion, so Words with Friends 2 brings all those brain-training benefits into an online platform.
These are classic games of an ancient Chinese origin, and have truly lasted the test of time! Mahjong games are brain-teasing tile based games, which were originally developed during the Chinese Xing dynasty. They required skill, strategy and patience.
This is a wonderful collection of 14 different logic and puzzle based games aimed at improving logic, counting, memory and attention. They include some more classical brain game variations such as dominoes, spot the difference, sequences and more. There’s something basic and easy here for everyone to enjoy, and it doesn’t require a large commitment to get into.
Games That Actively Teach New Information
If you love strategy games and want to learn a great bit of history, Civilization 5 should be right up your alley. It is one of the most addictive turn-based strategy games, where you control one of 43 real-life civilizations, and compete on large maps for resources and global dominance. The educational benefits come from just how amazingly historically accurate and informative Civilization 5 is, with an in-game encyclopedia that offers huge amounts of information on each civilization.
Another awesome strategy game with a strong focus on historical accuracy, Crusader Kings II takes you through the middle ages as you control a Medieval dynasty from 1066 to 1453 AD. The game is able to teach you a lot of geography, important historical dates, and has links to Wikipedia pages for many of the historical figures featured in the game.
For learning new languages, you should have plenty of fun with MindSnacks series of games, which are offered in a variety of languages. MindSnacks games offer to teach you Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Chinese, and Japanese. The games offer much more than just basic word memory similar to flashcard language learning. You will be playing a wide variety of games designed to build vocabulary, boost conversational skills, and teach useful little nuances of the various languages.
Another great language-learning series of games, Learn with Lingo Arcade offers versions in Spanish, English, French, and German. Each version of the Learn with Lingo Arcade app comes with four games and five difficulty settings, all designed to help you improve beyond basic vocabulary in the chosen language.
Influent is a computer video game and language learning tool that offers a huge list of different languages to learn. Its not so much a “video game” per se in that is has a plot – basically, you can freely navigate a 3D environment, and click on pretty much every object in the various rooms throughout a large house.
The objects will then be translated and spoken to you. For example, you can click on a cabinet in the kitchen to open it, then click on each household item in the cabinet to learn the appropriate word in the chosen language. Influent currently offers Japanese, European Portuguese, Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, Brazilian Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Latin, Bulgarian, Korean, German, Swedish, Spanish, French, English, Mandarin Chinese, and Hindi, with more languages being added in future updates.
Want to learn how to fly a plane? Of course you do! Flight Simulator can actually really teach you how to fly a plane. Well, sort of. You won’t exactly be able to hop into an airplane’s cockpit and take control of the craft after a few hours in Flight Simulator, but the software is used by numerous flight schools as a training supplement to real-life practice.
Minecraft may appear as a block-building game on the surface, but its so much deeper. Minecraft can actually teach you the very real fundamentals of engineering, and even a bit of scripting. There’s also a ton of game modifications available, some of which are used in real educational scenarios.
A mod known as Polycraft World, for example, was designed by Professor Walter Voit of the mechanical engineering department of the University of Texas at Dallas, to teach his students about harvesting and mixing various chemical ingredients. Many classroom teachers also use Minecraft: Education Edition, which includes a huge range of topics including gravity, quantum mechanics, and coding.
Listening to music has its own benefits on the brain, but learning how to play an instrument? That unleashes a whole new potential of brain creativity. Rocksmith is a video game that literally teaches you how to play guitar, using a real guitar. You connect a guitar to the game via a special cable, and the game has a huge library of licensed songs that you can learn to play in real-time. It’s a fantastic video game for beginner and expert guitarists alike.
Kerbal Space Program is a space flight simulation game, and it is incredibly realistic and educational. Your objective is to construct a fully functional spaceport, and launch rocket ships. Of course, building a rocket ship is no easy task, or aerospace engineers wouldn’t earn so much money in real life.
So of course, you need to consider things like fuel usage, trajectory paths, sufficient thrust, gravity, orbital dynamics, Newtonian dynamics, and all the other little nuances that go into successful rocket ship launches. Kerbal Space Program has been highly praised for its realistic approach to physics, and thus its not only an incredibly fun game, it’s a wonderful educational tool for anyone interested in aerospace engineering.
VR Games: Can They Be Used as Well?
One interesting thing to think about, since we’ve mostly covered typical brain-training apps and computer games, is the applications of VR (virtual reality) in the fight against dementia. In fact, scientists and VR developers have already been hard at work on this exact topic, and it turns out that VR experiences can be used as a calming, distractive technique for altering the mood levels of patients suffering from dementia.
Furthermore, a team of scientists in Germany published a study, where they used a virtual-reality based maze to help detect Alzheimer’s. Based on how the test subjects navigated through the maze, they were able to successfully identify which subjects had genetic markers for Alzheimer’s.
The future of VR, brain-training, and dementia prevention could be closely linked together, if this is any indication.