January 18, 2016

In 2015, Americans spent an estimated $114 billion on “anti-aging” products. That’s almost one-fourth of the entire Medicare budget. What’s disturbing about this phenomenon is that most of these products don’t do anything at all—other than burn a hole in the consumer’s pocket. That was true in 2002 when Jay Olshansky, along with 50 other scientific colleagues, published an article in Scientific American called “No Truth to the Fountain of Youth” and it’s true today. There’s much that can be done to prevent or treat many of the diseases of old age—we can treat high blood pressure to prevent strokes and we can treat Parkinson’s disease to improve mobility, for example—but the massive doses of vitamins and antioxidants and brain exercises that many people are duped into consuming don’t work. Hence the importance of the recent announcement that the company Lumosity had paid $2 million in a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over deceptive advertising practices.

You have almost undoubtedly heard the Lumosity ads. They are everywhere, even on public radio, where they aren’t called ads. The company makes “brain training games,” which it claimed would delay age-related cognitive decline and protect against the development of Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. Now it’s possible that playing mind games for 15 minutes a day, 3 or 4 times a week, will make a difference. But so far, nobody, including the neuroscientists who Lumosity says have developed and tested their product, has been able to demonstrate this is true.

People do all kinds of things they find pleasurable or at least satisfying, so what’s wrong with engaging in “brain training exercises?” After all, the exercises might work. We just don’t have the evidence to suggest that they do. At least these activities are not downright harmful. Healthy people playing mind games are not analogous to patients with advanced cancer insisting on fourth-line chemotherapy-- even though in both cases the rationale is that they want to feel they are doing something to combat disease The harm from last ditch chemotherapy is considerable while the harm from mind games is the money and time people devote to something instead of engaging in a pursuit they actually enjoy. If you want to stimulate your mind, why not play a musical instrument or read a book or write a poem? Why not serve food in a soup kitchen or tutor a child in reading? Surely there are activities that are socially useful and personally rewarding that are also stimulating. 

Perhaps what distresses me most about the marketing of brain exercises, and why I think the FTC announcement is such good news, is that selling Lumosity's products to the consumer is built on deception. And not just any kind of deception. The company asserts that its claims are scientifically valid. But any careful analysis of the scientific studies shows this conclusion to be bogus. That bothers me. It bothers me because science is one of the best ways we have for arriving at the truth about our world—but to derive its benefits, we have to apply scientific principles and scientific reasoning carefully and accurately. It bothers me because we believe that patients should be involved in medical decision-making and for that they need information. As a result, physicians, the media, drug companies, and device manufacturers all inundate patients with data. But if patients are to decide wisely, the data on which they make their choices must be correct. And the data do not show that brain training exercises of the kind utilized by Lumosity can stave off dementia.

If you enjoy brain exercises—I, for one, find doing Sudokus and Crossword puzzles very relaxing—go ahead and do them. If you want to feel you are doing something to keep your brain functioning and can’t come up with anything other than puzzles, then do puzzles. But you shouldn’t waste your time and money doing something based on misinformation. It’s high time we stopped confusing lying with freedom of speech.

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