Do Brain Training Games Really Work?

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There is a long-standing notion that playing brain games, such as puzzles and memorization activities, can help stave off the negative effects of aging. But is the old "use it or lose it" adage really true? Do these cognitive games really have any sort of impact on mental functioning?

This training may be beneficial for helping people to maintain and even improve some aspects of cognition. With a large population of aging adults, such improvements could have a significant impact on the mental health and functioning of older adults.

What Is Cognitive Training?

Also known as brain training, cognitive training is a non-pharmacological approach that involves following a series of regular mental activities designed to help maintain or even increase a person's cognitive (thinking) abilities. 

Some of the mental abilities that are often targeted by cognitive training include:

  • Attention
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Problem-solving
  • Reasoning
  • Working memory

In addition to this specific brain training, there are also more general forms of mental training that can help retain or improve mental fitness and cognitive functioning. This more general mental training focuses on keeping the brain "fit," much the way exercise improves and maintains physical health.

General types of mental training can take a variety of forms, including physical exercise, playing video games, staying socially engaged, and participating in creative pursuits.

Potential Benefits

The focus of these activities is to help people become better at things like learning, solving problems, and reasoning. Some of these brain training activities focus on doing things like helping people remember more or improving their ability to focus and pay attention. 

Such abilities have obvious uses in daily life. Being able to pay attention may help you focus on a class lecture or complete tasks without getting distracted. Being able to remember more might help you learn new things efficiently or recall the names of new people you meet. 

Research has also found that these abilities are strongly linked to things such as intelligence, school achievement, and overall success in life. Given the importance of these skills, it is perhaps not surprising that researchers have long been interested in knowing if such abilities are malleable. 

Uses

There are a number of reasons why people might want to try cognitive training. These include:

  • Slowing the cognitive declines associated with aging
  • Helping older adults remain more independent
  • Sharpening mental skills needed in daily life

Mental abilities that tend to decrease with age include processing speed, reaction time, decision making, short-term memory, and planning skills. Brain training may be helpful for sharpening these abilities, and it may help reduce the risks of some age-related memory problems.

One 2016 study, for example, found that training focused on improving processing speed reduced the risk for developing dementia a decade later.

There is also hope that some types of brain training may be useful for addressing certain types of impairments or problems. For example, in 2020, the FDA approved a brain training game designed to help treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The treatment is delivered via a video game that has been shown in several clinical trials to improve attention in children with ADHD. These effects also translated into meaningful improvement in daily functioning after a month of treatment. Such results show the potential that brain training may have.

Effectiveness

Researchers have been studying the impact of brain training for decades. However, there continues to be surprisingly little consensus on the effectiveness of cognitive training.

While there is research that supports the idea that specific brain training exercises can improve specific cognitive skills, there are other studies that have arrived at different conclusions.

Despite this lack of agreement in the research, an entire industry of apps, games, and other tools has emerged based on the idea that playing these brain games can improve your mental abilities.

Do Skills Transfer to the Real World?

And while there is some support for brain training, researchers have also questioned whether the skills gained during these training exercises transfer to real-world activities. In other words, does playing a memory training game really mean you'll remember what you needed to get at the grocery store?

There is some research that supports the use of brain training and its transferability to daily life and functioning. In one large-scale study, mental training was found to improve the cognitive function of older adults that led to lasting real-world improvements such as recalling when to take their medications.

The potential for such lasting benefits could help older adults maintain their mental abilities and independence as they age.

It's not just aging brains that stand to benefit from cognitive training. Research also suggests that brain training games can help improve executive functions such as working memory and processing speed in younger adults as well.

Why Results May Vary

The question, then, is why have some studies supported the positive effects of cognitive training while others have not found such effects? There may be a few factors at work.

  • Not all types of brain training are equal: The broad nature of "cognitive training" itself means that different studies may not be looking at the same thing. The types of brain training used in research may lead to different effects both in lab settings and in how (and if) those skills might later be transferred into the real world.
  • It may help some more than others: It is also important to note that much of the research does not account for individual differences. Memory training may be useful for people who are experiencing specific memory deficits, but people with normal abilities may experience less significant effects.
  • It may have limited effects: One review of the research suggested that while brain training may be beneficial, it may be most effective for tasks that are very similar to the training activity. It also appears that this training may be more beneficial when it is done over an extended period of time.

Should You Try Brain Training?

If you are interested in using brain training, there are a few different things you can do. Cognitive training exercises often involve such things as pattern detection, using a touch screen program to increase thinking speed, and memorizing lists. Such activities can often be found online or by using mobile apps.

There are some things you should remember before trying these websites, games, or apps, however:

  • Many brain training companies exaggerate the benefits of their products.
  • Researchers have yet to uncover what elements make brain training interventions effective.
  • Research has also not determined which types of training or what combination of training is needed to be effective for different conditions or problems.
  • The types of apps and games that are available to consumers have usually not been scientifically tested to demonstrate their validity or effectiveness.

Some of these brain training companies were actually fined by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for making misleading claims about the benefits of their games.

A 2016 study compared the effects of the brain-training tool Lumosity to regular video games. The results found that both groups showed improvements in cognitive abilities—but so did other participants who didn't play any games at all.

How to Improve Brain Fitness

The reality is that brain training may or may not work, but engaging in mentally stimulating activities is always a good thing. Finding ways to challenge your brain may help you feel sharper now and protect your brain as you age.

If you are interested in trying some more general mental training designed to improve overall brain fitness, you might want to focus on doing mental exercises on your own. Some brain-boosting activities that might be helpful include:

  • Do math in your head
  • Draw a map from memory
  • Learn a new language
  • Learn how to play an instrument
  • Memorize lists and test your recall
  • Play Sudoku
  • Put together a jigsaw puzzle

In addition to such cognitive training, there are other things that you can do to help take care of your brain. Activities that can improve your brain health include getting regular exercise, being socially active, and meditating.

A Word From Verywell

Cognitive training may have a number of potential benefits, but it is also important to understand the limitations. It may sharpen your skills and help you retain more information, but you shouldn't expect miraculous improvements.

Such skills may or may not translate to the real world. If nothing else, these brain games can be a fun, challenging way to put your cognitive skills to the test.

Rather than focusing on training for a specific mental ability such as working memory, you might be better off focusing on things that promote long-term brain health and fitness. These include staying physically active, managing your stress, getting plenty of sleep, and maintaining social connections.

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