A Facebook friend in her 60s commented she finally remembered the name of the bird she’d seen in her garden. That she was able to do so made her made her happy. It meant her little gray cells were working. I knew what she meant. At a certain age, we tend to second guess ourselves, ever mindful that dementia could be looming.
Not surprising, businesses exist that seek to profit from our fear. In “Can You Train Your Brain?” (Scientific American Mind, July/August 2015, pgs. 64-67) Simon Makin writes the global market for brain enhancing devices has jumped from $210 million in 2005 to $1.3 billion in 2013. The makers of these devices, largely games, make impressive claims for their products, but little science lies behind those claims. A report jointly issued by the Max Plan Institute and the Center for Longevity at Stanford, debunked many of them. “Brain Games Are Bogus.” (Ibid, pg. 66) “…where science and commerce intersect, truth can be a casualty,” the author observes. (Ibid, pg. 66.)
In fairness, some of the products have a modicum of truth to support them. Games can develop specific skills required to play them, but those skills aren’t transferable to other brain functions. One obtains “crystallized” knowledge as opposed to fluid intelligence, the kind which is transferable. (Ibid pg. 67.)
We know so little about how the brain works that building programs to enhance its functions haven’t been effective so far. As Makin explains, “Everything we do involves multiple cognitive processes.” (Ibid pg. 68.) Practicing one game skill in the hope it will enhance the overall organ is like plucking a single guitar string again and again and expecting to be able to play music. (Ibid. pg 69)
Surprisingly, for the elderl,y too much brain plasticity may have its disadvantages. Stability — keeping what we’ve got — may be a better bargain than change. (Ibid 66)
Most of us already know the best advice science has to offer to promote brain health. Maintaining social ties is a big factor. Have coffee with friends often. Learn how to play that guitar or pick up a foreign language. These activities engage the brain on multiple levels. And of course, let’s not forget the well-worn mantra: eat a healthy diet and exercise. Engage in these simple activities and you increase your chances to live long and prosper. (Spock, Star Trek)