Everyone accepts that our bodies stay healthier if we give them a good workout on a regular basis. The idea that the same might be true of our brains is a little more controversial, but it’s growing in popularity.
Scientists have been learning more and more about how our brains can adapt and change throughout our lives – a feature which they call neuroplasticity. For instance, as black cab drivers learn the Knowledge of 25,000 London streets, scientists can see the changes take place in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in spatial navigation.
At the same time, a longer lifespan means people are more aware than ever of the distress that conditions such as dementia can bring.
Brain training apps aim to use the growing science of neuroplasticity to help our brains stay sharp and healthy as we get older, and to improve capabilities such as concentration, memory and co-ordination.
But such apps have also come in for criticism, with scientists accusing the companies behind them of making exaggerated claims about their effectiveness. A review of the leading apps by the Australian Alzheimer’s Research Foundation found fewer than 40% of them had any scientific backing and just two met the highest standard of evidence, with two randomised controlled trials showing they work.
So what do those apps have to offer?
Brain HQ has been endorsed by none other than Tom Brady, often named as the greatest NFL quarterback of all time, who has used the app’s visual and audio processing exercises to keep his reaction time sharp over his lengthy career. “This kind of brain training is like physical conditioning. It can help anyone,” he says.
As well as speed, users can work on memory, attention, people skills and intelligence with interactive games that adapt to their level of performance, offering greater challenge as they improve. Brain HQ recommends three 30-minute sessions a week.
Cognifit isn’t short of credentials, either. It’s been used by the US Navy to test how pilots are affected by fatigue. For those of us not in the Top Gun Academy, it assesses more than 23 cognitive skills and creates a personalized brain training programme.
In addition to fundamental tasks such as memory, coordination and concentration, there are tailored training programmes for tasks such as driving and brain stimulation designed specifically for older people. For those who like a little competition, you can compare your skills with the rest of Cognifit’s millions of users around the world.
There are alternatives to brain training apps too. Many scientists suggest that dedicated brain training programmes aren’t necessary, and people can keep their brains in good condition with everyday activities. Research suggests that regular exercise can improve memory recall, problem solving, concentration and attention to detail. Creative activities have also been shown to boost cognitive functions.
Dr John N. Morris at the Harvard-affiliated Institute for Aging Research says to choose activities which are challenging, complex and require regular practice. “Embracing a new activity that also forces you to think and learn and requires ongoing practice can be one of the best ways to keep the brain healthy,” he says.