Expert Consensus Statement on Brain Health 2009 Stanford University
One of our most popular workshops is on Memory and Ageing. As we age, we feat that we will lose some or all of our mental abilities and we will lose our independence as a result. If we forget something we worry, we worry that our forgetfulness is perhaps the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Apprehension about the future leaves many people looking for magic bullets that will prevent our minds from failing us, and some makers of “brain-boosting” products are all too happy to claim they have magic bullet solutions. There is a huge market that includes nutritional supplements, games and software products that will help us as we age. Some of the claims are reasonable but untested, others are far-fetched and some are false.
Research shows that the brain is highly responsive to the environment and displays an impressive capacity to compensate for damage. Scientists are investigating the potential of technology-based software products and other approaches, like physical exercise, that may be useful in maintaining cognitive fitness. Remember the brain-training industry is completely unregulated and its quasi-scientific claims are not vetted by any third party, prospective consumers face the challenge of separating wild claims from serious science.
The Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, convened some of the world’s finest cognitive scientists to produce a consensus statement for the public regarding the state of the science for such products. Since that time, other distinguished neuroscientists, ethicists, and ageing experts have added their names to the consensus as well. Here is what they say:
• There is a reason for optimism. Cognitive performance in many older adults appears to be improving over historical time. For example, a recent study with a national U.S. sample found that older people today show less cognitive impairment than earlier cohorts.
• Although based on plausible biochemical reasoning, dietary supplements such as Gingko Biloba do not have enough clinical research to prove they enhance cognitive performance or reduce the rate of cognitive loss.
• Software-based cognitive training and brain games have been shown to improve users’ performance on trained tasks. The important caveat is that very few training programs have shown evidence that such gains translate into improved performance in the complex realm of everyday life. A program might train you to memorize lists of words, for example, but this particular skill is not likely to help you remember where you left your car keys or the time of an upcoming appointment.
• Consumers should look for products that can substantiate their claims with evidence from research.
• Consumers should be leery of anyone who claims to cure or prevent Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia or pre-dementia.
• Taking good care of your health, especially blood pressure and blood sugar can aid cognitive performance.
• If your goal is to improve your chances of remembering peoples’ names at an upcoming party, there are many proven ways to do this. However, no intervention to date has shown that once undertaken it can reduce the rate of cognitive decline over several years or decades.
• Learning stimulates the brain and contributes to one’s general sense of competence. However, there is no evidence that any particular formal training or practice regime is required. Consider hidden costs beyond dollars and cents when investing in new training: every hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, making a new recipe, or playing with your grandchildren. Other avenues for cognitive enhancement, such as participating in your community and exploring your passions may also stimulate your mind while producing socially meaningful outcomes.
• Physical exercise is not only a low-cost and effective way to improve your health but also an important key to improving brain fitness. Scientists have found that regular aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain, and helps to support the formation of new neural and vascular connections. Physical exercise has been shown to improve attention, reasoning and components of memory. Exercise as a promising approach to cognitive improvement.