Mind games: Do memory apps live up to their hype?

03/26/2013 12:00 AM

03/27/2013 10:46 AM

After Marty Michaud suffered from a stroke in 2010 that initially left half of his body paralyzed, the 50-year-old doubted almost every aspect of his memory.

Had he spelled that word right? Was that math correct?

He felt he was constantly asking his wife to be his personal fact-checker. Then he discovered two online memory programs, Happy Neuron and Lumosity.

“I got bored because I spent a lot of time in the hospital and then came home,” Michaud said. “I saw Lumosity and Happy Neuron. They looked goofy, but they challenged me.”

Gradually, he saw his median score on the games start to improve. Now, his wife says he’s correct more often than not or he’s so confident he doesn’t have to ask.

Programs like Happy Neuron and Lumosity have jumped in popularity in the last several years, particularly as boomers hit their senior years. Another program, Fit Brains, launched at the end of last year, already has 2 million users of its app and 500,000 users of its website.

Users like Michaud swear by them, but do they really work?

Yes, but with some qualifiers, says Dr. Richard Isaacson, an associate professor of clinical neurology and Alzheimer’s specialist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Isaacson, a neurologist who has a family history of Alzheimer’s, says to be wary of thinking of brain games as “a magic pill.” When it comes to improving memory and mental sharpness, he recommends a more comprehensive approach. That includes seeing a doctor, eating healthy, getting exercise — all essential elements of keeping the mind healthy.

Michaud takes a page out of that book. In addition to playing the games, he takes Pilates classes, and learns alongside his sixth-grade daughter as she does her homework.

“Even though it is sixth grade work, I’m learning all over again,” he said.

Memory games can be part of that comprehensive regimen, Isaacson said. Some of his patients use Lumosity.

“When it comes to mental activities and mental stimulation, if someone enjoys doing it, that’s OK and good,” he said. “But I’m an advocate for learning something new, getting new hobbies, learning a new language, taking an adult education class.”

These activities may have more of a “spillover effect” than playing memory games, he says, because you are training your brain to learn a new skill.

“You can do all the Sudoku you want,” he said. “But it’s just going to make you better at Sudoku. It’s not going to make your brain better.”

Anthony Dick, an associate professor of psychology at Florida International University, said the same about the games’ benefits.

“(Users) might get much better at the tasks in the game, but that doesn’t necessarily generalize to other tasks,” he said.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to try them, he said.

“Any time you’re doing these tasks, which are grabbing your attention and forcing you to do something besides watching TV, that’s a good thing,” he said. “The brain is like a muscle that benefits from exercise. But the research is generally suggesting these (games) are not living up to the advertising.”

Mauricio Giraldo is a 39-year-old Miami triathlete who started to notice he was forgetting where he put his keys, or got confused at times on driving directions. Two years ago, he started using Lumosity, an online game and mobile app in which users complete activities to improve mental sharpness.

Susan Brandt of Miami said she started using Lumosity about a year ago.

“My greatest fear in life is not so much getting sick in my body, but losing my brain,” she said. Since beginning to use the program , she has noticed her ability to remember names has improved.

Giraldo said he finds Lumosity is an alternative to spending computer time on Facebook and emails.

“Sometimes you go to the gym to do something for your body, but you forget your brain,” he said. “And your brain is aging, too. When you’re old and your brain is still working, you can’t move as fast as when you were young. But you can still be smart.”

This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their insights with The Miami Herald. Become a news source by going to MiamiHerald.com/Insight.

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