To prevent Alzheimer’s, play Pac-Man

The results of the ACTIVE study—Advanced Cognitive Training in Vital Elderly—have been released and contain groundbreaking findings.

It’s not news that cognitive exercise, such as learning a new language, solving riddles and puzzles, playing a new musical instrument, reading, etc., improves memory and the ability to process information. Observational studies, i.e., the sort of studies that can suggest associations but cannot establish cause-effect relationships, have suggested that cognitive exercise is associated with reduced potential for dementia. (Comparing, for example, two people with similar quantities of brain atrophy and beta-amyloid plaque accumulation in the brain, the person who engaged in lifelong learning will show less dementia than the person who did not engage in lifelong learning.)

ACTIVE was not an observational study, but the much more solid prospective treatment trial in which people were given various forms of learning, then tested for cognitive ability over the years, up to a total of 10 years. The novel finding from the ACTIVE study is that certain forms of cognitive exercise can substantially reduce the likelihood of developing dementia as assessed by cognitive testing.

Interestingly, exercises for memory and reasoning did not impact on likelihood of developing dementia. However, exercises involving speed-of-processing reduced likelihood of dementia by 29% over the 10-year period. Participants who engaged in the greatest number of training sessions had an impressive 42% reduction in dementia.

The speed-of-processing training used in ACTIVE was the BrainHQ program in which participants are given patterns shown with increasingly shorter periods of time. For example, you are shown a dozen identical birds and have to click on the one odd bird among them. Each time, the picture is shown to you in increasingly shorter time periods, challenging you to recognize patterns quickly, down to fractions of a second. Or you drive a make-believe car on a desert highway and you have to read the signs on the road that flash quicker and quicker along the side of the road. Such exercises have been shown to increase auditory and visual processing speed, reverse memory ability to that of someone 10 years younger, improve attention, and appear to translate to improved driving habits with a reduction in accidents.

It therefore appears that cognitive exercises that force you to process information faster and faster, recognize patterns quickly, and be spatially aware are key to preventing dementia, but not so much memory or reasoning exercises. The BrainHQ program has the support of many research publications over the years that validate their methods.

You could enroll in the BrainHQ program for $ 14 per month. But are there other ways besides BrainHQ that employ speed-of-processing training involving multiple simultaneous spatial sensory inputs?

Remember Pac-Man? You control the yellow cartoon creature who eats up the dots as the ghosts chase you faster and faster in a two-dimensional maze: speed-of-processing, multiple spatial inputs. How about the old Galaxian or Galaga space games? Once again: speed-of-processing, multiple spatial inputs.

Obviously, such video games do not have the scientific validation of a program like BrainHQ. But, because they are nearly 40 years old, you can obtain them inexpensively (on computer, tablet, smartphone, game devices, devices that plug directly into TVs) and they are simple, certainly far simpler than, say, Call of Duty Black Ops on an XBox.

Given the findings of the ACTIVE study, I’ll wager that just getting yourself some video games, even relatively simple ones like Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man, can accomplish quite a bit in engaging your brain in healthy ways, even though it may appear to be nothing more than a mindless game.

In coming weeks, we will be posting a number of advanced concepts on how to prevent/reverse cognitive decline and prevent Alzheimer’s dementia on the Undoctored Inner Circle website. We will include many of the most cutting-edge and unconventional strategies t stack the odds in your favor to preserve high cognitive functioning for a lifetime.

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Dr. William Davis

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