Of the many uncertainties in life, the spectre of wasting away mentally due to dementia can be one of the most disquieting.  Like any part of our body, we have been told to, “Use it or lose it.”  It makes sense, but when it comes to memory games and our brains, is it true?

We take it on good authority that doing crossword puzzles will help us stay sharp in later years.   The desire to stay healthy and avoid mental decline has spawned a huge industry of brain training, memory tests and the like.  Do they help us avoid dementia?  There is evidence that says they don’t.

In one study over 10,000 participants engaged several times per week in online games designed to improve reasoning, attention, memory, visual-spatial skills and planning.   While improvements were seen in each of the areas trained, there was no evidence that the improvement transferred to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were similar.

As one researcher stated, “doing crossword puzzles will help you get better at crossword puzzles, but it may not stave off dementia.”

Lumosity is one of the well-known companies in this field.  Last year, however, they agreed to pay $2 million to settle false advertising claims.  The Federal Trade Commission asserted that they deceived consumers with representations about how their games help reduce cognitive decline.  The government said there was no scientific evidence to support Lumosity’s marketing assertions.

So what helps us avoid dementia, if anything?  In addition to regular exercise and a healthy diet, mental engagement is certainly part of the solution.  The Alzheimer’s Association suggests that we stay curious and committed to lifelong learning.  They recommend that we attend lectures and plays, enroll in courses, and stay socially active.

What experts recommend sounds a lot like the unstructured play that has been that proven to be so effective in the brain development of children:  a variety of stimulation in different unstructured settings.  Conferences, lectures, social gatherings, church groups… the good news is that these activities are fun and don’t have to cost a lot.

Caring Corner

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About the Author:

Lorenzo Mejia and his wife, Mary Lynn Ryerson, are the owners of Acorn, a caregiver registry located in Chapel Hill.

They founded Acorn based on their experiences caring for his mom, who suffered with Alzheimer’s Disease.  In 2013, he became a Qualified Dementia Care Specialist.  In 2014, the Alzheimer’s Foundation named him the Dementia Care Professional of the Year in the United States.

Lorenzo is the founder of Dementia Friendly Orange County an effort to make local businesses more accommodating to people with dementia.

Lorenzo speaks often on dementia and the challenges associated with caring for loved ones.  He has been interviewed by ABC News and National Public Radio.  He is an advisor to Orange County’s OC-CARES Dementia Capable Community Project.

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