Scientists are skeptical of ‘brain games’ for older adults

"To date, there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life," write scientists in a public statement about computer games marketed to older adults. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Nearly 70 scientists have issued a statement saying they’re skeptical about claims that computer-based “brain games” actually help older adults sharpen their mental powers.

Laura Carstensen, a Stanford University psychology professor and the director of the Center for Longevity, says that as baby boomers enter their golden years, commercial companies are all too often promising quick fixes for cognition problems through products that are unlikely to produce broad improvements in everyday functioning.

“It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products,” she says. “But in the case of brain games, companies also assert that the products are based on solid scientific evidence developed by cognitive scientists and neuroscientists.

“So we felt compelled to issue a statement directly to the public.”

One problem is that while brain games may target very specific cognitive abilities, there is very little evidence that improvements transfer to more complex skills that really matter, like thinking, problem solving and planning, according to the scholars.

No magic bullet

While it is true that the human mind is malleable throughout a lifetime, improvement on a single task—like playing computer-based brain games—does not imply a general, all-around and deeper improvement in cognition beyond performing better on just a particular game.


“Often, the cited research is only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell,” says Carstensen.

Agreeing with this view were the experts who signed the Stanford-Planck consensus statement, which reads in part:

“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. . . . The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles.”

Lifestyle matters more

As the researchers point out, the time spent on computer games takes away from other activities like reading, socializing, gardening, and exercising that may benefit cognitive functions.

“When researchers follow people across their lives, they find that those who live cognitively active, socially connected lives and maintain healthy lifestyles are less likely to suffer debilitating illness and early cognitive decline,” as the statement describes it.

“In psychology,” the scientists note, “it is good scientific practice to combine information provided by many tasks to generate an overall index representing a given ability.”

The same standards should be applied to the brain game industry, the experts maintain. But this has not been the case, they add.

“To date, there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life,” the participants state.

One reason is the so-called “file drawer effect,” which refers to the practice of researchers filing away studies with negative outcomes. For example, brain game studies proclaiming even modest positive results are more likely to be published, cited, and publicized than ones that do not produce those affirming results.

Source: Stanford University