During the last few years, the idea that the brain is like a muscle has become popular: if it is not trained, it atrophies. As a consequence, brain exercise through problem solving, puzzles, sudoku, etc. It has been disclosed as a method not only to minimize the intellectual decline that occurs with age but also to decrease the risk of suffering from senile dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
The reality, however, is that the scientific evidence in the field of neuroscience that supports the above statements is very weak. As Steven Novella, a neurologist and professor at Yale University School of Medicine, explains: "What more than two decades of research shows is that by performing a specific mental activity you become more skilled at that activity, and that's it. If you make a sudoku, you become better at solving sudoku, you do not get smarter. "
These neuroscience discoveries, however, have not been an obstacle to the booming "brain training" industry in the form of books, video games, music, courses … In fact, a sectoral report predicts that the cognitive assessment business and the Brain training moves more than eight billion dollars in the world until 2022. As almost always happens, marketing is ahead of science when it is not directly trampled.
A study recently published in the medical journal British Medical JourneyHe adds another compelling reason to be skeptical about brain training. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen (UK) and the National University of Ireland followed 498 volunteers for 15 years. All participants shared a number of details: they were born in 1936, lived independently in northeastern Scotland and had already participated in a research on mental health in that country in 1947. The question the scientists wondered was how it related? the degree of mental activity with cognitive decline associated with age, then they assessed the volunteers' mental activity over time, as well as their cognitive performance.
Among the results of the study, they found that those people who were more mentally active throughout their lives also had higher cognitive abilities. In spite of everything, it is not possible to know, through study, what is the cause and what is the consequence. If those who are smarter tend to be more mentally active (which would be logical) or vice versa, they are smarter precisely because they are more mentally active. Be that as it may, the crux of the study question is that increased mental activity was not associated with a delay in cognitive decline later in life compared to the lower activity group.
In other words, as age reduced cognitive abilities, mentally active and passive volunteers experienced an intellectual decline in the same proportion (specifically, memory problems and processing speed). However, those who were active throughout life had an advantage, with greater cognitive abilities, which allowed them to enjoy more time with better cognitive functions. The authors of the study explain: "These results indicate that involvement in problem solving activities does not protect against individual decline, but grants a higher starting position from which the decline is observed and delays the point at which disability becomes significant ".
This resembles previously documented cases, such as chess players. It is known that in general, when they suffer from Alzheimer's disease, their affectation of life is considerably less than the normal population. It is not that their mental activity protects them against dementia or Alzheimer's disease is that they have superior brain abilities that make clinically the most obvious symptoms take much longer to appear. It was impressive the case of a chess player who suffered a slight cognitive impairment in the last years of his life. When he died, doctors discovered with surprise the autopsy that, in fact, his brain showed very advanced signs of Alzheimer's disease.
Of course, the limitations of this type of study are always considered. Undoubtedly, the strengths of the study are the 15-year follow-up of a population of almost 500 people. Despite this, it is an observational study (there is no intervention of the researchers on the habits of the volunteers), which prevents us from assigning causes and effects. Instead, we can only establish general correlations and conclusions. Even so, the moral of the story is clear: if you are intelligent and have a life rich in learning and various mental activities, you are probably part of a superior cognitive function that does not delay mental decline but will cause you to start from a situation more privileged. and the symptoms take longer to appear. Now, doing mental training through specific activities of a certain age will not be the magic solution to make up for a whole previous life of mental laziness.