Brain Age Mythology Compared to What Really Improves Cognitive Health

Many people have been asking us recently about whether we all have a "Brain Age" and how we can reduce our "brain ages". This concept is a myth, fueled by the (very fun) Nintendo game and a recent PBS campaign promoting a program produced by Posit Science. The concept of having a "brain age" is, itself, profoundly unscientific, despite the radio ads for the PBS program titled Brain Fitness Program, where listeners of all ages get the impression (as many friends and colleagues have reported) that, should they buy the Posit Science Brain Fitness Program, they can expect their brains "rejuvenated" by 10 years. This, I hear often, must be true, coming from PBS. Unfortunately, it isn't. And it isn't because the claim is founded on the same faulty premise of having a "brain age".

What is going on? First, the good news. Today we know today that the brain retains lifelong plasticity (the ability to change itself through experience). Aging does not mean automatic decline.

Furthermore, we know that a variety of lifestyle factors, including physical and mental exercise, can influence how our mental abilities evolve as we age. We can delay or slow down age-related decline. Not only that, we can improve our abilities, and a number of computer-based programs have shown how they can help specific groups of people train and enhance specific cognitive skills. Now, what is important to recognize is that there is not one overall "brain age".

We can view our brain functions or cognitive abilities as a variety of skills, some more perception-related, some more memory-related, some more language-related, some more visual, some more abstract-thinking and planning oriented. All science-based brain fitness products in the market today target specific cognitive skills. The research that has been published shows how specific brain functions can be improved. But there is no general "brain age" that can be measured or trained in a meaningful way.

Let's analyze the PBS Posit Science-related message: you can rejuvenate your brain by 10 years. What would this mean, were it to be true? perhaps that ALL cognitive abilities would go back to where they were 10 years before. and that this would happen for individuals of all ages: in our 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and so on. It would also mean that, given that rejuvenated "brain age", our risk of developing Alzheimer's symptoms would be adjusted to reflect our "new" brain age.

And that the evolution of our cognitive abilities over the rest of our lives would reflect our new-found "brain age". Has this been shown? Unfortunately, not. The "10 years" claim seems based on one published study, and several unpublished ones, where individuals with an average age of around 70 years take on a very intense auditory processing training program that enables them to improve related auditory cognitive skills by a significant percentage. Whereby, on average, and on those specific skills, they reach a level comparable to people 60 years old.

But this doesn't say anything about other cognitive skills. Or Alzheimer's related risks. Or the cognitive trajectories that will follow. Just think about this: if, by attending an intensive tennis camp, you were able to serve at a level comparable to people 10 years younger than your age.would you say that your body is now 10 years younger? Probably not.

You'd say that now you play tennis better. Which is a significant benefit in itself if that's what you are after. Recent studies have shown a tremendous variability in how well people age and how, to a large extent, our actions influence our rate of brain improvement and/or decline. The earlier we begin the better.

And it is never too late. What can we do to maintain our brain? Focus on four pillars of brain health: physical exercise, a balanced diet, stress management, and brain exercise. Stress management is important since stress has been shown to actually kill neurons and reduce the rate of creation of new ones.

Brain exercises range from low-tech (i.e. meditation, mastering new complex skills, lifelong learning and engagement) to high-tech (i.e.

using the growing number of brain fitness software programs). In summary, the great news is that there are more tools available than ever before to assess and train a variety of cognitive skills, in what is still today a very small, but growing market. Nintendo, Posit Science, and others are offering valuable products and services. The bad news (is this really news?) is that we shouldn't be expecting magic pills and that "brain age" is a fiction. In case you wonder.

I do have and enjoy my copy Nintendo Brain Age, and appreciate it as a stimulating game. I simply don't outsource my brain fitness to Dr. Kawashima.

Copyright (c) 2008 SharpBrains.

Alvaro Fernandez is the CEO and Co-Founder of SharpBrains.com, which reviews resources for cognitive health and links to free brain exercise. SharpBrains has been recognized by Scientific American Mind, Newsweek, Forbes. Alvaro holds MA in Education and MBA from Stanford University, and teaches The Science of Brain Health at UC-Berkeley Lifelong Learning Institute.

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