‘Is Wordle a form of brain training? The answer’s no’

The big question is: do such puzzles or “brain training” games work? The evidence is, unhelpfully, confusing. Along with many of its other tips, Dementia UK emphasizes that “taking part in hobbies, learning a new language, knitting, puzzles and listening to music… will stimulate different areas of the brain and help with attention and concentration”.

But Alzheimer’s UK reports a mixed picture. “Some studies have found that cognitive training can improve some aspects of memory and thinking, particularly for people who are middle-aged or older,” it notes. But “so far, no studies have shown that brain training prevents dementia”.

Indeed, it warns: “People should be cautious if they find commercial packages that claim they can prevent or delay cognitive decline as the evidence for this is currently lacking. Recently, one of the leading providers of commercial brain training games was fined for making false claims about the benefits of their product.”

That may be a reference to the US firm Lumosity, behind the computer “brain training” app Lumos Labs, which in 2016 paid a $2 million fine levied by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on the basis that it “deceived consumers with unfounded claims that Lumosity games can help users perform better at work and in school and reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age”.

Then the FTC’s director of consumer protection, Jessica Rich, went so far as to say that “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease. But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”

If the claims were too bold, the rewards on offer may explain why. The brain training market is expected to grow from $3.2 billion in 2020 to $11.4 billion by 2025 and $20 billion by 2028.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should all chuck away our crosswords and sudokus, or even delete our brain-training apps.

A recent analysis of 215 clinical trials supported by America’s National Institute on Aging (NIA) showed that the “various cognitive training tools… can help older adults who are healthy or have mild cognitive impairment to improve cognitive health and perhaps their everyday functioning”. Critically, it found that while the benefits were “modest in size”, they affected both the healthy “and those with mild cognitive impairment. This may mean that some forms of cognitive training can help reduce or delay the development of cognitive impairment and dementia”.

Indeed, the NIA is now funding a major trial of brain training software, ending in 2026, in an attempt to pin down the evidence once and for all. Meanwhile, here in Britain, a huge study called Protect, run in partnership with the NHS, is following thousands of people to find out, as lead researcher Professor Clive Ballard puts it: “which combination of [lifestyle] factors really work” in preventing or delaying dementia.

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