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

Rationale Behind Brain Exercise to Avoid Cognitive Decline

Increasing attention is being paid to the health, social and economic challenges and opportunities posed by a rapidly aging population. In recent decades, given the projected expansion of the number of individuals who will develop dementia, it is becoming increasingly important to develop comprehensive approaches to primary, secondary and tertiary prevention of dementia and related disorders. As the normal aging process is also strongly associated with brain changes that lead to a weakening of some select cognitive domains in healthy persons, there has been growing interest in finding methods to 'keep our brains sharp' by maintaining or enhancing cognitive performance.[1] In addition, as age is the pre-eminent risk factor for the development of pathological brain alterations giving rise to dementia, there is an increasing focus on prevention and treatment including the use of techniques that maintain or strengthen cognition.[2] Not surprisingly, interest among the consumer public in learning how to prevent cognitive loss and how to strengthen cognitive abilities in mid and later life appears to be steadily rising. This has led to the emergence of a new 'Brain Fitness' commercial industry in which structured, live cognitive training programs, computerized games, internet-based course work and other 'products' are being marketed and sold to consumers.[1] Whether these and other activities have been rigorously and reliably demonstrated to enhance cognitive skills and functional abilities in healthy adults as well as individuals with severe acquired cognitive deficits, such as mild cognitive impairment and dementia, remains controversial and is the central subject of this article. Despite this caveat, ongoing scientific advances in various research fields do support the potential for neural connectivity to be malleable throughout the lifespan. Specifically, enhanced understanding of the biological process of neuroplasticity and a retained capacity in late life for neurogenesis may provide the rationale for the continued development of training techniques to maintain and strengthen cognitive performance at any age. As a result, the scientific-based potential of 'cognitive exercise' and the accompanying era of a commercial 'Brain Fitness' marketplace have most certainly now arrived.