Exercising the Brain to Avoid Cognitive Decline

Examining the Evidence

William E Reichman; Alexandra J Fiocco; Nathan S Rose


Aging Health. 2010;6(5):565-584. 

In This Article

Rise of the Commercial Brain Fitness Movement

Despite the need for more research to determine intervention efficacy, a new market of 'brain fitness' products have already been developed for the consumer public, the corporate training sector, insurance companies, schools and related educational programs. These products include web-based cognitive exercise programs, DVDs, corporate training programs and recreational games played online or on hand-held devices. Very few of these products have been scientifically tested and fewer still have reported their findings in peer-reviewed journals. Yet advertisements for various products may make rather bold claims, such as 'improve memory by 10 years'. When scientific studies do attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of cognitive training programs for improving cognitive function, they may reveal nothing more than marketing myths. For example, Owen and colleagues recently conducted an internet-based study on the benefits of playing video games similar to the Nintendo DS™ Brain Age games for producing improved cognitive function.[77] A total of 11,430 volunteers, including experimental (n = 8692) and control (n = 2738) participants, aged 18–60 years practiced a variety of video games designed to train functions such as reasoning, memory and attention over 6 weeks. Although improvements were found in the specific trained cognitive tasks, the authors reported no evidence for transfer effects of training to cognitively related untrained tasks. It is important to mention a number of limitations with the study. The study did not enroll adults over 60 years of age, there were substantial dropout rates (approximately 80%) and participants only had to perform at least two 10-min training sessions over 6 weeks in order to be included in the analysis. Therefore, the results of the Owen et al. study should not be taken as definitive evidence against the possibility that cognitive training can provide benefits to cognitive function in later adulthood. Future research is required to determine the effectiveness of various 'brain training' video games.

Despite the lack of substantiated claims for cognitive training benefits, the brain fitness commercial industry is rapidly growing worldwide with reported sales of US$100 million in 2005 having grown to $265 million in 2008. It is anticipated by leading brain fitness industry analysts that this market could achieve between $1 billion and $4 billion in revenue by 2015.[56]