If Brain Training Won’t Help the Elderly, What Will?

In October, the Stanford Center on Longevity published a statement, signed by about 70 psychologists and neuroscientists, that likely shocked millions of consumers and disgruntled a number of tech companies.

The statement, which criticized brain training companies’ claims to improve cognitive abilities included the following: “We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do.” Soon after the statement was released, the Dana Foundation posted an interview with Professors Walter Boot and Arthur Kramer regarding the recent scrutiny of brain training.

On the heels of this public degradation of apparently scientifically-backed strategies to enhance cognition, Aging2.0 held a pitch event in Washington, DC for start-up companies aiming to improve the lives of our aging citizens. Over 100 people assembled in downtown DC on November 7th for the event, many wondering how recent statements about brain games might undermine some of the participants’ products.

Aging 2.0 Pitch Event at Washington, DCOnly a couple of presenters claimed that their products affect the brain. However, their pitches may have been influenced by recent news that brain scientists are taking a more active role in assessing the validity of relevant claims made in the private sector. While these individuals effectively conveyed the value associated with the ability to induce certain types of neural activity, they did little to persuade us that they are actually able to do so.

One company representative, for example, alluded to the “very, very complex algorithm” the company uses to make its recommendations, while a gerontologist representing a company that deploys kits developed to stimulate the brain evaded questions about what the kit actually contains.

Brain training is estimated to be about a $1.3 billion a year industry, regardless of whether the task-specific improvements in performance that are demonstrated by brain training companies actually represent global cognitive changes that will help consumers with other tasks that are actually relevant to their daily lives. The market share that relevant companies enjoy speaks to the significant market opportunity surrounding both strategies for impacting the brain and strategies for helping the growing elderly demographic.

Though the recent statement put out by scientists may deter some young companies from attempting to create products that are grounded in hard science, science does provide some clues for addressing complaints commonly made by older members of society. For instance, cognitive decline is associated not only with a reduction in mental exercise but also with reductions in physical activity, sleep, and proper nutrition. Nutrition in particular is often overlooked as a critical component of brain health, even though certain nutrients are required for the maintenance and growth of the very brain cells that support cognition. In addition, brain changes that occur with age do much more than promote cognitive decline. They also alter peoples’ moods and behaviors, and helping Grandma feel less depressed may improve her quality of life more than helping her remember where the remote control is.

As the leaders of Aging 2.0 and several participants in Friday’s event pointed out, the brain is not the only worthy target for start-ups interested in helping the elderly. Quality of life results from a combination of factors, including mental and physical health, mobility, and social engagement. Each of these factors was addressed by at least one company at Aging 2.0’s event. The winner of the event, Luna Lights, prevents and detects falls.

Though the companies that pitched ideas more relevant to the social aspects of older peoples’ lives did not get as much attention from panel members, much of the panel conversation that followed pitch presentations focused on ways to reduce the isolation that often comes with aging. Anne Marie Kilgallon, the AARP’s Director of Corporate Relations and Business Development emphasized that technology is a “hugely important way to connect people.”

Sandra Timmermann, a gerontologist, reiterated Ms. Kilgallon’s point, pointing out that older women don’t have the same community networks they used to have when they were more likely to have lived in the same town for years and years. Technology, she said, can provide means for companionship.

The panel also talked about the potential for technology to support older folks’ general desire to stay at home as they age. Even better, the panel agreed, would be for people to start sharing houses, as such a solution would provide companionship, as well as safety and economic benefits. Andrew Carle, Executive Director of George Mason University’s Program in Senior Housing Administration, said that this idea is particularly appealing because baby boomers like to congregate more than members of previous generations did.

Regardless of how companies choose to address the needs of our aging citizens, Scott Collins, President and CEO of Link-age, said that he likes to invest in companies that use technology as enablers for the elderly. The mission of such companies is likely well-aligned with that of Aging2.0.

Stephen Johnston, Aging2.0 Co-Founder, explained that he believes we need to shift our mindsets from Aging1.0, where the older generations represented a problem dealt with by the government, to Aging2.0, where we recognize the opportunity to create a “holistic community that connects medical, lifestyle, financial services, etc… that make life worth living.” Creative applications of science and technology should certainly bolster this opportunity.

Image via Firma V/Shutterstock.

Nisha Cooch, PhD

Nisha Cooch, PhD, is a Senior Contributor to Brain Blogger. She holds a PhD in neuroscience and is an expert in the neural basis of decision making. You can follow her on Twitter @NishaKCooch.
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