A Wall Street Journal article on Tuesday, July 26, 2016 entitled “Can This Brain Exercise Put Off Dementia?” hitp://on.wsj.com/2arSPfA reported on the results of a new study, called “ACTIVE” for Advanced Cognitive Training in Vital Elderly, that were presented the previous Sunday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Toronto, the world’s largest gathering of Alzheimer’s researchers. The article immediately attracted attention within a group of my close Baby Boomer friends who have known each other since elementary school. The New Yorker also published an article on the same study on July 24, 2016 http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/could-brain-training-prevent-dementia.
According the Journal “The study results showed that speed training—computer exercises that get users to visually process information more quickly—beat out memory and reasoning exercises, two other popular brain-training techniques sometimes suggested for improving cognitive function and reducing dementia. Researchers found that a total of 11 to 14 hours of speed training has the potential to cut by as much as 48% the risk of developing dementia 10 years later.”
As reported by the WSJ, the ACTIVE study, which was funded by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Nursing Research, included 2,832 healthy subjects, ages 65 to 94, at six study sites around the U.S. Participants were randomized to get one of the three cognitive-training programs or be in a control group. Since 1998 the study has received a total of $33.8M in funding and is still in touch with all but 4o of the original participants.
Prior to release of the ACTIVE results there was no evidence that computerized brain training had any effect on cognitive ability or dementia prevention. The New Yorker cites a consensus statement by more than 70 academics in 2014 that “playing brain games has been shown to improve little more than the ability to play brain games.” And in January of this year the Federal Trade Commission fined Luminosity, the largest and best known provider of brain games, two million dollars for making unsubstantiated claims of cognitive improvement for its games. Thus, the large and well-funded ACTIVE study is likely to provide a big credibility boost for the use of computer mind stimulation games to combat cognitive decline and dementia.
The speed training component of the ACTIVE study used a computer game in which, for the briefest instant, two images appear, one in the middle and one on the periphery of the screen (see below). The computer then prompts you to identify whether the central image is a little car or little truck along with which edge the second image appeared. The more accurate you get, the more quickly the images appear and the more complex the background becomes.
Double Decision is a more user friendly version of the speed training game used in the ACTIVE research that was acquired by Posit Science, of San Francisco, in 2007 and is now part of the company’s BrainHQ online service, a cognitive-training program. A monthly subscription, which includes access to Double Decision, is $14 a month, or $96 a year. Posit Science says the company intends to file a medical-device application to the Food and Drug Administration based on the recent clinical trial findings.
After reading the WSJ article my friends and I were immediately tempted to purchase Double Decision through the Brain IQ service, as would any Boomers concerned about their future cognitive abilities. However, our group of friends includes Mitchell Clionsky, Ph.D. who is a clinical neuropsychologist and has worked extensively on dementia testing and evaluation. Dr. Clionsky, or Mitch as we know him, pointed out that, unfortunately, these kinds of stories hit the news with some regularity, always look really great, but sometimes aren’t.
Mitch points out that the ACTIVE research was presented at AAIC as a talk. It has never been subjected to peer review or published in a journal, which the WSJ and The New Yorker also mention. In other words, lotsa sizzle, maybe not so much steak. It also defies reason that 10 sessions of training would impact cognitive functioning 10 years later. Finally, the 48% difference in the frequency of dementia in the ACTIVE study is the calculation of decline from a conversion rate after 1o years of 14% for healthy adults with an average initial age of 73 to a conversion rate of 8% for the subgroup undergoing computerized speed brain training for 10 hours and receiving just four more hours of training. In a large group this is statistically significant. However, it may be less meaningful when applied to individuals.
Mitch is hoping that there is something to the ACTIVE research and looks forward to a replicated study, with a more varied dosing schedule of exposure to training, and better measures of cognitive functioning 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 years later. In the meantime, he thinks it the impact of using computerized speed training exercises on dementia are way overblown.
Mitch believes it would be better for us Boomers to take home the message: Don’t retire entirely or, if you do, stay mentally and physically active (by writing a blog, playing golf and exercising for example). Get yourself a cool gaming station and play some intense shoot em up games or other video games that require lots of visual processing and reaction time. That way, at least you will be having fun. Control your diet, keep your BMI at about 25, don’t drink too many margaritas at one sitting, take a 30 minute walk every day.