Game On – How Tech Can Help Alzheimer’s Patients

Can tech tools like “brain games” help Alzheimer’s patients and/or help stave off symptoms? Yes, it appears there is hope in addition to traditional methods of keeping the brain sharp.

Mental decline, or the loss of mental abilities with advancing age, is a part of normal aging. The sharpest decline in mental abilities occur in mathematics ability, the least in spatial orientation for men, and in inductive reasoning for women. Altered connections among brain cells are the cause of loss.

Benefits of an Active Brain

Research has found that keeping the brain active increases its vitality and may build its reserves of brain cells, connections and generate new brain cells. Higher levels of education appear to be somewhat protective against Alzheimer’s, possibly because brain cells and their connections are stronger. Well-educated individuals can still get Alzheimer’s, but symptoms may appear later because of this protective effect. Low levels of education (assuming a lower level of life-long mental stimulation) are related to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s later in life.

Keeping it Sharp

Aside from our education levels – which may or may not be in our control – how can you stop the progression of the disease before you and/or your loved ones lose their memories? Start with something small, like a daily walk. After a while, add another small change and work through this list of suggestions:

  • Stay curious and involved
  • Commit to lifelong learning
  • Read, write, work crossword or other puzzles like Sudoku
  • Attend lectures and plays
  • Enroll in education courses
  • Play games – in person like bridge or online chess challenges
  • Garden
  • Memory exercises

The Case for Brain Games

weston-brainMore than 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the US. By 2050, rates of the disease could nearly triple if left unchecked. Over the last few years, with the proliferation of online memory tools, apps and programs, debate has surrounded whether “brain games” can stave off Alzheimer’s.

New research shows for the first time that older adults who play computer-based brain training games can cut the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia and cognitive loss even years later. If the research is scalable, this would be the first intervention, including drugs, diet, and exercise, with these results.

These new findings suggest we may be getting closer to knowing how to prevent the devastating neurodegenerative disease. In July 2016, results from a promising 10-year trial involving nearly 3,000 older adults were announced at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Toronto. The trial found that a specific type of computerized brain training game that tests mental quickness decreased the onset of dementia by 48 percent compared with controls. These results have not been published in an academic journal, and should be considered preliminary until they are. However, until we find a cure, the study gives hope that Alzheimer’s can be prevented, or at least its worst symptoms can be postponed.

The big idea behind the new research is that speed-processing training builds ” cognitive reserve.” In Alzheimer’s, a type of dementia, the brain physically becomes degraded by malicious plaques and proteins and exhibits symptoms like memory loss, difficulty moving, and loss of reasoning. Scientists believe that structural damage to the brain can precede cognitive changes by 10 years, which offers an opportunity to strengthen a person’s established neural connections to stave off the onset of the disease leading up to the 10-year mark.

The researchers working in this area are aiming to find a constellation of activities that bolster the mind as it degrades. They call this reinforcing process building “cognitive reserves.” Until now, research this far suggested that having a stimulating job, a good diet, good exercise, and strong social ties are keys to increasing these reserves. This new study gives a nod to computerized brain training as a possible solution to add to the arsenal.

If you have employed these “brain games” to help boost your mental acuity, please share your experiences with us on our Facebook page  .

Do brain games help those living with Alzheimer’s disease? Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center tells us about the evidence.