Game Called

Despite the hype, brain training games lose out to living a robust life when it comes to resilient cognitive aging

According to Verified Market Research, the Global Cognitive Assessment and Training Market was valued at $3.10 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach $18.01 billion by 2027, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 28.56% from 2021 to 2027.

Impressive figures—but possibly little more than smartly marketed gimmicks. In fact, when it comes to exercising core cognitive skills that can best preserve cognition and sustain a more resilient life, long into those golden years, the better path may be to simply live life. Socialize. Read. Learn new tasks. Take a class. Just make sure it’s a task that’s worth doing again. And again.

That’s the hypothesis presented by Elizabeth A. L. Stine-Morrow, PhD, professor of Educational Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, during her APA 2021 virtual presentation. The session, titled Resilient Cognitive Aging: Why Real Life is Better than Brain Training, delivered several studies that suggest—although do not prove—that life’s lessons beat out brain training games.

To begin with, Dr. Stine-Morrow explained, multiple meta-analyses and systemic reviews report that brain training games don’t live up to the promises. A 2017 report from the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine presented perhaps the most noteworthy conclusion, saying that there is evidence that cognitive training can improve performance on a trained task in the short term but there is no conclusive evidence for long-term benefits. In addition, the report says, results from most randomized controlled trials that tested cognitive training are mixed.1

For the record, The National Institute on Aging is a little tougher: “Be wary of claims that playing certain computer and online games can improve your memory and other types of thinking as evidence to back up such claims is evolving.”2

A Fact of Life

The effects of an engaged lifestyle on cognition, however, appear to bring a sustained commitment to improving or maintaining cognitive skills, Dr. Stine-Morrow suspects.

For one, she said, life provides many opportunities to learn new skills, and when an individual selects which skills they want to learn—as opposed to learning the skill presented by an online app—engagement appears to be stronger, more consistent, and more effective.

Skills learned while navigating life also tend to be skills that will actually be used to live life. In other words, these skills are embedded in social context and are used for a purpose, Dr. Stine-Morrow said.

Finally, “life probably affords coordinated skill training in multiple diverse contexts to stimulate broad effects and cognition through mutualistic effects,” Dr. Stine-Morrow explained.

The Assumption of Mutualism

Dr. Stine-Morrow offered a concise dive into mutualism, explaining that this is the idea that learning one skill potentiates the ability to learn related skills. “So, for example, learning tennis could facilitate the ability to learn badminton but not baseball,” she said.

Or, in textbook-ese, “the theory of mutualism posits that general cognitive ability emerges, at least in part, due to positive reciprocal interaction between distinct cognitive abilities during development. In other words, cognitive abilities at a given developmental time point govern the rate of growth in other cognitive abilities.”3

This is not to be confused with transfer skills, Dr. Stine-Morrow added. This is about related skills mutually influencing one another as they develop over time.

“By contrast, mutualism suggests that positive manifold emerges in the ecology of exercise and cognitive skills through the mutual influence of growth in related skills,” she explained. “So as one cognitive skill is enhanced with experience, related cognitive skills are more sensitive to experience, and thereby grow differentially by virtue of this earlier experience.”

Dr. Stine-Morrow and her team tested this assumption by examining the effects of previous training on the rate of learning a working memory task. At the test conclusion, accelerated growth in learning a new skill was identified as a function of previous training on different tests in the domain, consistent with the principle of mutualism.

During her session closing remarks, however, Dr. Stine Morrow made it perfectly clear that no evidence to date has sidelined brain training games. At the same time, seeking ways to maintain cognition by living every day to its fullest has not yet been awarded the blue ribbon. “So, brain training or everyday life; it’s up to you!” the doctor said.

  1. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.  Evidence Supporting Three Interventions That Might Slow Cognitive Decline and the Onset of Dementia Is Encouraging but Insufficient to Justify a Public Health Campaign Focused on Their Adoption. June 22, 2017. Available at https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2017/06/evidence-supporting-three-interventions-that-might-slow-cognitive-decline-and-the-onset-of-dementia-is-encouraging-but-insufficient-to-justify-a-public-health-campaign-focused-on-their-adoption

  2. National Institute on Aging. Cognitive Health and Older Adults. Content reviewed: October 01, 2020. Available at https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults

  3. R.A. Kievit Sensitive periods in cognitive development: A mutualistic perspective Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 36 (2020), pp. 144-149, 10.1016/j.cobeha.2020.10.007