January 15, 2009

Send your mind to the Gym? Lumosity vs. Laziness

Terry Pratchett, a best-selling author of dozens of books, was once asked by his doctor if he had any problems with his memory. Pratchett paused, considered the question, and replied, "Not that I recall."

This anecdote got a laugh when he told it at a book signing, but when he announced a few months later that he was suffering from a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, it didn't seem so funny.

You'd think the nice part about losing your memory would be that you wouldn't remember that you were losing your memory. No. I think of all the diseases you could get, Alzheimer's must be the worst. The thing is, people often are aware when something's not right. They know there's a problem, though they don't always know what it is.

There was a big kerfuffle on Pasta Queen's blog when the comment was made that receiving a cancer diagnosis would be better than bearing chronic pain and never knowing what was wrong with you. Similarly, Pratchett claims that he'd rather have cancer than Alzheimer's. "I'd like a chance to die like my father did - of cancer, at 86.Remember, I'm speaking as a man with Alzheimer's, which strips away your living self a bit at a time. Before he went to spend his last two weeks in a hospice he was bustling around the house, fixing things. He talked to us right up to the last few days, knowing who we were and who he was. Right now, I envy him."

Even if you don't develop Alzheimer's, your brain will change as you age. It's not all bad news, though.

Richard Restak, the author of the best-selling Mozart and the Fighter Pilot's Brain points out that as we get older, the number of nerve cells decreases, "but the richness and complexity of brain circuitry increases." (My translation: Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.)

Physical exercise can help with memory loss. To quote wonderful Dr. Mirkin (yes, again), in an article he wrote about memory and blood sugar, "Hundreds of other studies show that 1) exercise slows loss of memory with aging, [and] 2) diabetes markedly increases risk for dementia...."

But according to Restak, the memory expert, physical exercise is not the main priority to help your brain. "The best protection against developing a memory disorder? Exercising the brain's memory mechanisms."

This seems to me to be rather important. The thing is, unless I get run over by a bus or develop a horrible disease, I'm going to get older. And I don't want to spend my last years confused while life goes past in a blur. It's heart-breaking to see someone deteriorate from a healthy alert personality to a confused faded forgetful shell of themselves.

While I was pondering this, I got an invitation to try out Lumosity. It's a web site devoted to cognitive learning. Sounds fancy, doesn't it? What it boils down to is a series of mental exercises, in the form of different online games, that are supposed to help keep your memory sharp.

When you start out, you complete a series of memory games that establishes a baseline. Then you perform memory workouts, for about 10 minutes a day, to work on improving your ability. You can also compare your results against the average test results for someone of your age group, which could prove useful.

One thing that I like about Lumosity is that it's a website where games are being updated and new games are being added, as opposed to some other brain programs that I've seen, which allow you to download a static software program.

Why do I want to play these video games? I've got bubbleshooter!

The nice part about doing memory exercises on the web is that I associate them with video games, i.e. it feels like I'm doing something fun. It's like chocolate-covered broccoli: something that's good for me and tastes good. (Okay, so I've never actually tried covering broccoli with chocolate. It's an analogy, okay? Work with me here.)

I love the idea of 'brain games,' the same way I love the idea of playtime exercise as opposed to working out on a treadmill. Some of the games were fun, some were frustrating. (Argh! I do not have an aptitude for spatial memory!) It was encouraging that I could re-try the frustrating exercises and see an improvement.

All that I've learned from playing games like Bubbleshooter was that I have a low frustration level -- and it doesn't improve the more I play the game.

What are these games like?

At first the games on the Lumosity site are childishly simple. I felt like I was playing at the two-year-old level. Then... um ... they're got more challenging.

One game tested peripheral eyesight and memory, which they claim helps with driving. (You had to watch for something appearing on the corner of the screen while remembering a letter that flashed in the middle of the screen at the same time.) Another game involved matching name tags with people, which is something that I have a helluva problem with at parties. Another had me trying to think -- under the clock -- of all the seven letter words out there that start with "Ann_____" I would've thought I was good at that, but not when I've got a clock ticking away.

I keep thinking that I should be able to improve my memory without paying some website $80. On the other hand, how much do you pay for your gym membership? Is your brain worth less than the rest of you? (That's $80 a year, or about $6.66 a month.)

Hell, why can't I just do these memory games on my own?

That's fine, if you've got access to games that will help you improve your memory. And if you're disciplined enough to actually do the work.

There probably are people who are self-disciplined enough to do something like this on my own. Me, I'd find excuses and rationalizations and it probably wouldn't get done. I've had Restak's book on my nightstand for the past three months, intending to go back and do some of the memory exercises that he describes. I'm sure I'll get around to it... one of these years... Why is it that it feels like work to perform exercises from a book, yet I always can find time for ten minutes of playing games on the computer? That's why I'm inclined to like the idea of this memory training website -- I'm more likely to actually do it.

I'm seriously considering giving a membership to my mother, since she's fixated on not losing her faculties.

Try it yourself. No strings.

If you're curious, check the Lumosity site out. They've got a seven-day trial version you can play with -- and you don't have to give any credit card information before starting the trial, which makes for a nice change.

Plus, it's a sweet setup: you get to play video games and no one can say you're not doing something useful! (Except perhaps the boss. Try this at home, eh?)

If you'd like to read more about the theory behind the Lumosity games, here's their Brain training page.

What do you think? Is this something you could (or more important, would) do on your own? Or would you consider trying a mental gym?


  1. I always ponder the idea of, How much stronger could my mind be and How could I use that to my benefit. I had friends who religiously did the crossword puzzles in grad school, and they always seemed to be the top grade getters...coincidence? Probably not. But I could never get myself to just sit down and do it, mostly because after picking up a book of 'easy' crossword puzzles and not being able to complete one, I got frustrated and said, "I'm just perfect the way I am" ha!

    But, I think I'll give this one a go! Motivation to up brain cell count: ON!

    Thanks Merry!

  2. Alzheimer's isn't the only culprit that destroys the brain and strips us of our dignity and our cherished memories. Dementia is brutal too. I love your post about exercising the brain. It has been proven that a brain that is, as you say taken to the gym, is less likely to have early onset dementia or Alzheimer's. Great post!

  3. I think the fact that exercise will help with memory is a HUGE factor now of why I will remain faithful to daily exercising :)

  4. Any idea how participating on blogs, etc., affects memory/mind flexibility? I'd like to see a study on that! I'm no expert but seems anything that keeps the mind active might help.

  5. Terry Pratchett is probably my favorite author. When that news came out, it was just another horrible example of how unfair life is.

    When I graduated college and settled into a receptionist job until something better came along, I started wondering if I was getting stupider because I couldn't remember things as easily and that scared me. I'm taking a course soon, and a big reason why I am (along with having more marketable skills) is to challenge myself.

  6. Alzheimers and dementia are terrible diseases, robbing the elderly (and sometimes not so elderly) of their dignity. Lou Gehrig's disease is another.
    Now I have justification for sitting in front of the computer playing memory games! I'm trying to prevent Alzheimers....

  7. Hmmm. Right now, I feel like doing the crossword/sudoku and drinking tons of green tea and eating lots of berries is enough for me (for the next few years).

  8. Anything that makes you use your brain is a good tool to keep it healthy and I would probably love that site, so I'll have to check it out. But, even things like crossword puzzles or taking a class will help as well.

    I haven't found anything yet that helps me improve my short term memory, which is a constant obstacle in my life and it is so frustrating. I'm willing to spend $80 to see if it helps. :)

  9. I have also heard that doing crosswords helps with keeping your brain functioning - I have been doing them for years and years, so hopefully that will help!
    Thanks for the link!

  10. When I was in college, we used to play Bridge most evenings! I found that during the times I played, my grades were better, even if I picked the Bridge over studying!

    Thanks for the link!!

  11. Im embarrassed Ive never heard of TP before and Alzheimers runs in my family.

    off to check out that link as well.


  12. I have lost a few loved ones to Alzheimers and it is truly sad to see someone fade before your eyes. I've heard it said to them that exercising your mind...simply *using* it regularly can enhance how well you react and how long you are able to fend off alzheimer's, although once it sets in, it can't be reversed. I've seen the brain of an alzheimer's patient...in the end it's usually much smaller, often with small gaps inside it almost like cheese. Your brain simply can't keep working the way it did before because it is not the same.
    It still is important to try tho...even things like corssword puzzles and anagrams can keep your mind sharper.

    I've been doing a lot of research into nootropic suppliments like piracetam. Apparently they actually help prevent brain damage, and can enhance your cognition and memory. It's given as suppliments to people who are just beginning the decline of alzheimers, and help improve the function of the brain...even in stroke recovery.
    I've been thinking of taking it to see if I can keep my brain in good shape for the long haul to come. HAve you heard anything about this?

  13. I've been playing Brain Age 2 on my son's Nintendo DS. I was considering getting my own DS as they had a pretty sky blue one that came in a package with Brain Age and a matching carrying case (I'm all about the accessories). But I guess when they said "limited edition" they really meant limited. It's not available anymore. :(

    But I find Brain Age 2 fun and it only cost me $20. Like I said, my son already had a DS. I'm interested in Luminosity but it's a bit pricey. Though I like how you can do it on your iphone. It's nice to get away from the computer sometimes, even if you're sitting in front of some other electronic device. :)

    I subscribe to the "use it or lose it" philosophy for mental as well as physical fitness. It helps to have an intellectual-type partner who keeps up to date on science, politics, etc. Also we play board games with friends about once a week. Not your typical Monopoly or Scrabble but pretty complex stuff you can only get at specialty game shops. I also do a lot of math in my head and fancy myself pretty quick with it. I try to choose leisure activities that allow me to sort of multitask - relax and develop my creativity, mind, body etc. I don't watch much TV.

  14. I like doing Sudoku puzzles while watching TV, which I figure is exercising my brain. I like the idea of memory exercises, but I can't see myself paying a monthly fee for it. Not that it doesn't make sense to keep the brain sharp, but I guess I figure there must be other things I could do...

  15. My problem with the idea of brain exercise is similar to my problem with gym exercises--I only want to do the ones I'm good at already!

    I like tasks that involve vocabulary words, and dislike anything to do with spatial memory or short term memory.

    I would probably be a good candidate for these exercises, but they'll probably remain on my "to do" list for long time until I get more motivated. But if I do, this site sounds like a great resource. Thanks for the review!

  16. Gotta train that brain for sure.

    Next to sharks, losing my memory is pretty much my biggest fear, and has been for years. Diseases like Alzheimer's just terrifies me.

  17. Like several other commenters, Alzheimers runs in my family (mother, maternal grandmother). So I try to do the recommended "use your brain in new ways" recommendation.

    (BTW, if I hit 65 without an AD diagnosis, the world is invited to my birthday party.)

  18. There's a nice downloadable brain game for the Wii, too. I've been doing that for a while, and I've noticed that I have gotten better at certain kinds of things that I always have problems with... like doing quick math in front of a class, sigh.

    And I can still beat my 14 year old, yay!

    My father is a crossword fiend, too, and he's sharp as ever at 86.

  19. I heard that those that retire and sit in front ot a television are 5 times more likely to have mind related problems than those that "exercise" their brains. This is a very good article Merry and I'm ready to try the link.

  20. Crosswords and sudoku are definitely supposed to help. I've seen people get addicted to both, but I've yet to develop the habit.

    I thank God that Alzheimer's does /not/ run in the family. And in my grandmother's defense, I must say that the old woman in the picture was sharp as a pin well into her 90s, and was enjoying life up to the end of her days.

    Geosomin? I've not heard of these supplements. Definitely need to look into them. (Though I like the idea of playing video games too ;)

  21. I don't have Alzheimer's in my family that I'm aware of. My father in law died of Lou Gehrig's and that was horrid to watch. The brain is still functional while the body slowly stops working. Many patients suffocate as their bodies stop breathing for them. I used to think of what it must be like inside his head during that time. He could not speak.

    Having been a victim of cancer, I don't know what the best thing to die of is anymore. I would want to be aware so I could be with my family. For me, that seems important. Knowing who was there when I left the planet.

    I keep my mind busy by thinking! I'd be ruined by Alzheimer's or dementia.

  22. Pretty interesting post. I have to agree that exercise is good for the mind and body. Altough when I hit the 2.5 hour mark during my runs and have not eaten anything yet, I have not mind at all :) I don't do that all the time though. But it did take off 130 lbs though. Good post.

  23. Interesting post, I may go try out that website. It's great to have one more solid reason to make myself get off my butt and go to the gym ^_^

  24. Love Terry Pratchett's books! Anyone who hasn't read them should read at least one.

    I will check out that link, but $80.00 is too much for me at this point. I love games though and do as many as I can, I would rather die in a single vehicle accident (I don't want to take anyone with me) or from a massive coronary. I've watched cancer kill people and have lived through cancer, so I know I don't want to go that way.

  25. Luminosity sounds fab! I spent two hours last night playing stupid bingo (Not something I usually do, I was just tired from taking down the Christmas tree.). I would much rather have been doing something not brain-numbing.

  26. Wow - Pratchett's story was rather heartrending. The idea of losing my mind is seriously terrifying to me. That said, I do exercise my brain but I do it the old fashioned way - I love crossword puzzles, sudoku & riddles. Probably not as cool as lumosity but cheaper:)

  27. Charlotte -- have you seen any studies about how crosswords and sudoku affect the memory? I'm not sure sudoku really uses the memory. (But I haven't tried it yet.)

    POD -- I don't want to go /any/ way, personally -- and I don't want you to go either! (Or at least I want to stay around for as long as I'm enjoying the party.)

  28. Reb -- it always surprises me how few people have heard of Pratchett, given that he's sold millions of books.

  29. Oh, no! I hadn't heard about Terry Pratchett. That's so sad.

  30. My grandmother suffered from Alzheimer's, although it's something I never worried about it myself, until recently. I've always enjoyed logic puzzles and brain games.
    My husband, on the other hand is a competitive sort and views himself as "not good" at that sort of thing. Sudoko, crossworld puzzles, trivia...it just frustrates him, so he gives up. His excuse for every other thing is "I forgot," and once, during a pretty heated argument, I told him I thought he should get medical help because something is seriously wrong with him...and that's how I found out that he has Alzheimer's in his family, too.
    Now I worry some for me, more for him, and mostly for our kids.

    I'm going to check out that website and hopefully talk him into trying some of the exercises on there. Thanks!

  31. Oh my gosh--I wrote my college thesis on this exact topic! And also the protection potentially provided by physical exercise and certain vitamins/foods.

    I'm glad this is getting more attention--we need so much more research into the pathology of AD!

  32. Lumosity is one of the better brain training games available. I would recommend them or Posit Science For those most serious about brain training and avoid "entertainment games" like Brain Age 2. If you would like to read some product reviews on these companies and others, feel free to visit my website.

    Brian Jones

  33. What a great, refreshing blog. I am so happy I discovered it. I have a son, Josh, with a serious brain injury and we have been using Lumosity for months now. It's great. I have a blog for Josh called joshjourneytorecovery.blogspot.com. It's good therapy to write. Brain injuries are soooooooo bizarre, I can't even tell you. Josh overdosed on drugs and alcohol, was in a coma for 2 months, had over 100 hyperbaric oxygen treatments and is up and about. He has no short term memory, no working memory (maybe 15 minutes long). He is darling and sweet and still a numbers kid. I love him dearly ! With regard to your great article "Send your mind to the Gym" - have you read STILL ALICE by Lisa Genova. It is a true page turner...about a Harvard psych professor who contracted Alzheimer's at age 50. It is heart-breaking. You may have mentioned this book in your prior blogs. Check it out and THANK YOU. xo

  34. I love your review and it actually is what got me interested in trying Lumosity. Well...less talk more work, let me go and do some brain exercises!


  35. Hi, I love to play online games. I played Everquest for about 7 years. When Everquest II came out I switch to EQ2. I have stopped playing for a few months last summer. I tried AION game a few weeks in september but I don't like it that much. I think I will go back to everquest II during the upcoming weeks. I have made many friends over there and I miss them.

    bubble shooter


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