Computerized "brain training" games may help older adults who have mild cognitive impairment, according to a new review in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Computerized cognitive training, or CCT, has been promoted in recent years as a surefire way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. Companies creating these brain games promise they'll exercise your memory, attention, and other cognitive skills, with some claiming they'll help prevent dementia. 

Until now, studies examining the usefulness of brain training have been inconclusive. In January the Federal Trade Commission penalized Lumos Labs, the company behind a top-selling program called Lumosity, for making unsupported claims about the benefits of its program. 

The brain-training industry still has a ways to go to demonstrate exactly whom it can help (and how), especially when compared with several noncomputer interventions that have been studied longer. But Arthur Kramer, Ph.D., director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, calls the new results "fairly promising."

Brain Training Explained

The authors of the review, a team of scientists from the University of Sydney, wanted to find out whether CCT had any effect on cognitive skills in older adults with mild cognitive impairment or full-blown dementia. They examined the results of studies that involved 686 participants with mild cognitive impairment and 389 with dementia.

The studies tested a variety of different programs, some commercially available and others designed by research teams. Some programs involved simple reasoning challenges, such as basic math problems or identifying matching shapes, while others used virtual reality or the Nintendo Wii, a video-game console with a handheld remote and motion detection. In most of the trials, people used the programs two or three times per week.

The researchers found that in older adults with mild cognitive impairment, using CCT was linked to improvements in skills such as memory, attention, and learning, though there were no such gains in people who already had a diagnosis of dementia.

Amit Lampit, Ph.D., who led the study, says the results are useful in understanding who might benefit from CCT. “We want to know whether cognitive training can really help people who are at a very high risk of dementia,” he says.

The study is the first to look specifically at CCT and people with mild cognitive impairment, Lampit says, and the results do show some promise for this group.

The lack of improvement among those with dementia was equally illuminating. “It emphasizes the importance of early intervention,” he says.

Lampit's new research, which summed up results from many different programs, found an overall positive effect on cognition among people with mild cognitive impairment, but there were some limitations.

Kramer notes that the cognitive gains were not long-lasting; they faded when people stopped using brain training. Researchers didn’t find improvement in certain critical skills including judgment, decision-making, and planning. And the improvements the researchers noted weren't associated with any measurable effect on the participants' daily lives, a finding that’s backed up by earlier research on this question.

What You Can Do

Multiple studies summarized by the Institute of Medicine and others show that there are a few things that can help keep our minds healthy as we age, Kramer notes.

Eating a healthy diet, like the MIND diet, which focuses on vegetables, nuts, beans, and fish, and getting regular exercise may stave off dementia. The institute also suggests quitting smoking, carefully managing diabetes and high blood pressure, and getting plenty of sleep. Social interaction and keeping your mind active (which doesn't have to include CCT) may help as well.