You’ve forgotten your password for the second morning in a row. As you re-set it – again – you start to wonder if this minor inconvenience is actually the sign of something more sinister. Is this the start of a cognitive decline? And if so, will you be forgetting your loved ones within a decade?
Even as you tell yourself that it’s unlikely, you decide to must do the weekend crossword and practise Suduko during your lunch break. If this sounds familiar, you might actually just be reacting to the marketing and promotion efforts of the billion dollar brain-training industry.
Companies producing online games and puzzles make extravagant claims they improve intelligence through increasing your ability to remember, focus, process new information and solve problems. And we’ve taken their word for it. So much so that in American alone $1.3 billion was spent on brain training activities in 2014.
But unfortunately those claims are so far unsubstantiated. Also in 2014, 75 leading experts in cognitive functioning signed an open letter stating there was little evidence to support the claims being made by brain-training developers. In fact any improvements we make in an activity we are practising are unlikely to translate into broader mental improvements. Nor is there any evidence that regular brain-training will help to prevent age-related decline in our mental functioning.
So where does this leave us if we are genuinely concerned about our memory and the prospect of age related decline? The leading experts addressed this issue by recommending that we lead ‘physically active, intellectually challenging and social engaged lives’ in ways that suit our interests and lifestyles.
So if you love to cook, invite your family around and try out a challenging new recipe. If you like to travel, dust off your primary school Spanish and plan a trip. Go for a bike ride, a long walk or do some gardening. Get involved in some volunteer work and make some new connections in your community. Or perhaps meet up with friends to try out geocaching rather than congregating in your usual haunt.
Our brains thrive on new and complex situations. So it’s important to push ourselves out of our comfort zones from time to time and take on new challenges. While most of the research is still observational at this stage, it’s quite compelling. One study looking into age-related cognitive decline tracked 1000 older people and found that the most socially active experienced only 25 percent of the cognitive decline of the least social.
Perhaps the best part of taking up these recommendations is that they are also likely to have benefits for our physical health and our sense of wellbeing. There is solid research showing that happiness is boosted by physical and social activity. And we all know the myriad of benefits that come from exercise. The desire to keep our brains sharp gives us one more reason to pull ourselves up from the couch and to head out the front door.