by: Roger Dooley
The recent publication of a study showing that performing mental exercises improves subjects’ ability to perform those tasks, even years later, has caused a flurry of interest in brain fitness. (See New Evidence for Brain Fitness.) Today, the New York Times reviews the literature on brain fitness in As Minds Age, What’s Next? Brain Calisthenics and strikes a cautious tone overall.
The article, by Erik Jacobs, concludes that the evidence for general brain fitness improvement is inconclusive at the moment.
“Right now,” said Dr. Marilyn Albert, director of cognitive neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, “we can’t say to somebody, ‘We know that if you walk a mile every day for the next six months, your memory’s going to be better.’ We don’t know that if you do certain kinds of puzzles it’s going to have a benefit.”
The two major approaches for improving brain fitness have been mental and physical exercise. The study mentioned in the “New Evidence” post did demonstrate a signficant and long-lasting effect for training on a specific activity. The Times article points out that the study didn’t establish a link between mental training exercises and any sort of general cognitive improvement, such as reduced forgetfulness or faster performance on mental tasks unrelated to the training.
The link between exercise and brain fitness is weak, too, though scientists seem to agree that improved physical condition and better blood circulation to the brain might be beneficial. The general feeling seems to be that both mental and physical exercise can’t be bad for most individuals, so there’s little downside to participating in them. Insurer MetLife has jumped on the brain fitness bandwagon by sponsoring a book, “Love Your Brain” by neuropsychologist Paul Nussbaum.
We think there’s one obvious conclusion about brain fitness: to maintain particular abilities into one’s advanced years, the best exercises are those that are similar to the specific activities you find important. You wouldn’t expect bicep curls to have much of an effect on your running endurance, and it’s probably unrealistic to think that doing sudoku puzzles will help you remember where you put your reading glasses. Rather, it would make sense to engage in a wide variety of mental activities, including some that are similar to the areas of greatest concern. “Use it or lose it” probably really does apply, but “using it” in relevant ways is part of the equation.