With people living longer, marketers are seizing on every opportunity to sell remedies and devices that they claim can enhance memory and other cognitive functions and perhaps stave off dementia as people age.
Among them are “all-natural” herbal supplements like Luminene, with ingredients that include the antioxidant alpha lipoic acid, the purported brain stimulant Ginkgo biloba, and huperzine A, said to increase levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine; brain-training games on computers and smartphones; and all manner of puzzles, including crosswords and sudoku, that give the brain a workout.
Unfortunately, few such potions and gizmos have been proved to have a meaningful, sustainable benefit beyond lining the pockets of their sellers.
Even the widely acclaimed value of doing crossword puzzles has been called into question. Molly Wagster, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging, said they are best done for personal pleasure, not brain health. “People who have done puzzles all their lives have no particular cognitive advantage over anyone else,” she said.
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The institute is one of several organizations sponsoring rigorous trials of ways to cash in on the brain’s lifelong ability to generate new cells and connections. One such trial, Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, or ACTIVE, was a 10-year follow-up study of 2,832 cognitively healthy community-dwelling adults 65 and older.
Participants were divided into four groups and assigned to one of three 10-session training programs – for memory, reasoning and speed of processing – or to a no-treatment control group, with an additional four booster training sessions 11 and 35 months later.
A decade later, at an average age of 82, some 60 percent of those in the training programs, compared with 50 percent of the controls, had maintained or improved their ability to perform activities of daily living.
All also had improved their respective trained functions. Those in the reasoning and speed-of-processing groups retained those benefits 10 years later, but the effects of memory training were ultimately lost.
While these results are hardly dramatic, given the aging population, even small benefits from training programs can greatly increase the number of older people who remain able to live on their own and enjoy life. Wagster suggested that such programs could be conducted at senior centers, YMCAs and other venues.
There is also research-based evidence that certain computer games can improve cognitive skills in older people. Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and his colleagues demonstrated that a computer game called NeuroRacer enhanced the ability to multitask, a facility that declines with age. “NeuroRacer” requires players to steer a car with the left thumb while watching for pop-ups that have to be shot down with a right-hand finger.
Participants ages 60 to 85 who trained on the game for four weeks improved their ability to focus well enough to outscore untrained 20-year-olds, and they maintained the benefit for at least six months.
Nonetheless, Gazzaley cautioned against assuming that video games are “a guaranteed panacea” for cognitive decline.
The Institute of Medicine has cautioned consumers to beware of phony or poorly tested products that claim to “prevent, slow or reverse the effects of cognitive aging.”
Consumers should ask: Was the product shown to improve “performance on real-world tasks”? Are the claims supported by “high-quality research” that has been “independently verified”? And, how do the supposed benefits compare with those from actions like physical activity and social and intellectual engagement?
Jane Brody’s strategies
In addition to engaging in daily physical exercise, consuming a heart-healthy diet and trying to get seven hours of sleep a night, my own memory enhancing strategies include addressing people by name every time I see them and dialing frequently called phone numbers from memory rather than using speed dial.
But I also take practical measures to avoid memory lapses: I keep a running shopping list; post to-do notes in the kitchen where I can’t miss them; record all appointments, with audible alerts, on my smartphone and computer; and maintain a can’t-miss tickle file of upcoming events in date order, with the dates written in large red numbers. Jane Brody