Online cognitive training programs promise to boost memory and attention, and they’re popping up at a rapid pace. According to one dementia expert, the online cognitive training business has grown from about $200 million annually 6 or 7 years ago to an estimated $2 billion a year today. But are these companies truly giving patients an edge when it comes to warding off dementia, or are they cashing in on the worried well and an often vulnerable aging population?
The benefits of cognitive activity aren’t in question. It’s clear from the literature, says Dr Snyder, that engaging cognitively with challenging and varied tasks may help slow the rate of progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Sylvie Belleville, PhD, professor, neuropsychology, University of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and director of the research center there, also stresses the importance of living a cognitively demanding life. “It’s amazing the effect that lifetime stimulating cognitive activities have on the brain,” she says “People who have been cognitively engaged have less amyloid burden in their brain; they have a larger brain and more activation in the brain when they do a task.”
The lifestyle factor that has the most credible evidence for protecting against dementia to date is not cognitive training but physical activity. “The evidence is absolutely rock solid; it’s incontrovertible,” says Dr Snyder. He worries that patients will play online cognitive games three times a week in the hopes of protecting their brain instead of taking a brisk walk three times a week. It’s not clear whether pursuing cognitive training online adds any further benefits to physical and cognitive pursuits offline. That’s because to date there’s scant literature on the subject.