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Can Brain Games Make You Smarter?

Can we “train” our brains to be brighter, sharper, faster?

A while back I wrote a post about a big study looking at “brain training”. The researchers wanted to know whether training programs that look like video games (like Brain Age andLumosity) could significantly improve brain performance on various tests. The results, in a nutshell, showed that while participants improved on the tasks they trained on (e.g., if the game involved ranking balls from smallest to biggest, the participants got *really* good at ranking balls from smallest to biggest), the improvement didn’t carry over to general brain function.Turns out ranking ball sizes doesn’t help you remember where you left your keys this morning.

Two years later, what’s the word?

I’m going to shift a little from how I normally do things (review a single article) and tell you about findings I learned about at the recent Aging and Society conference. At the conference, several researchers talked about brain training in the context of aging. We know that as we get older our cognitive abilities decline – we forget names and words, misplace our shopping lists, and process information a little bit more slowly. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could just spend ten minutes a day playing games on our iPad and successfully counter this decline? Of course it would be fantastic. Not just for us, but also for the companies who are trying very hard to convince us to buy their products to improve our cognition.

The problem is that skills are specific. If you want to become a fabulous jazz pianist, you have to play the piano (preferably jazz songs, too). If you want to become a star ballet dancer, you have to practice ballet. If you want to become a better mountain biker, you have to mountain bike – road biking will improve your leg strength and fitness, but ultimately it won’t make you a better mountain biker. So why should things be any different for brain skills?

As it turns out, they aren’t. Two years later, nearly all the research conducted in the field of brain training is turning up the same results: people only get better at the tasks they trained on – the improvement doesn’t cross over to more general skills, different skills, or everyday life. In one study, a researcher compared a commercially available brain training program with what she called an “active control” – a group that simply played regular video games like Tetris. She found that the group who spent time on the commercially available brain training program actually saw some aspects of their cognition decline compared with the control group. Bummer.

Now don’t throw out your Brain Age game yet – everyone at the conference agreed that engaging your brain in training programs is better than not doing anything. And most of the researchers felt that while the programs don’t work now, it’s not to say they’ll never work. We are increasingly more knowledgeable about how the brain works, what happens when we get old, and what different training tasks do. So it’s quite possible that sometime in the near-ish future (don’t ask me when) we could see the advent of brain training programs that do have a significant and lasting impact on cognition.

Until then, there is one thing you can do to have a significant and lasting impact on your brain health… And I’ll tell you in the next post.

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Dr. Julie Robillard is a neuroscientist, neuroethicist and science writer. You can find her blog at scientificchick.com.

Do Doctors Feel That They Need Permission To Share Ideas?

Let’s say you’re a doctor and you have an idea, opinion, or a new way of doing things.  What do you do with it?

It used to be that the only place we could share ideas was in a medical journal or from the podium of a national meeting.  Both require that your idea pass through someone’s filter.  As physicians we’ve been raised to seek approval before approaching the microphone.

This is unfortunate.  When I think about the doctors around me, I think about the remarkable mindshare that exists.  Each is unique in the way they think.  Each sees disease and the human condition differently.  But for many their brilliance and wisdom is stored away deep inside.  They are human silos of unique experience and perspective.  They are of a generation when someone else decided if their ideas were worthy of discussion.  They are of a generation when it was understood that few ideas are worthy of discussion.  They are the medical generation of information isolation.

I spoke with a couple of students recently about Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

Is A New Kind Of Human Intelligence Evolving?

I woke up this morning, tapped my digital signal, and found this from Brian McGowan on Twitter: “What happens when complexity races ahead of the mind’s ability to adapt? When progress outpaces evolution? We need new solutions.”

Like a slow hunch, a version of this idea has been rattling around in my head for some weeks.  Specifically: Is there a new kind of human intelligence evolving?  Will our ability to work with knowledge in the face of limitless information select for a new kind of thinker in the 21st century?  I suspect it will.  Thinking and the creation of new ideas will require Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

Does Having An Advanced Degree Make A Better Nurse?

Here is Clara Barton, posing with a new class of graduate nurses who received their nursing education through a correspondence course offered by the Chautauqua School of Nursing. Did you know that some of Clara Barton’s contemporaries did not view her as a legitimate nursing leader because she supported alternative ways of getting a nursing education? It’s kind of ironic that many nursing leaders back then didn’t view the founder of the American Red Cross as an equal. Some things never change.

It’s an old discussion. Are nurses with an advanced degree better nurses? Do they make better leaders and does getting a degree elevate the profession? My blog mother, Kim McAllister, from Emergiblog brought my attention to an article that appears at HealthLeadersMedia.com. The article contains Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Nurse Ratched's Place*

Three Common Ailments That Can Be Treated With Regular Exercise

It’s Wednesday, so I would like to tell you about some cool things I learned this past week about the science of how exercise can be used as a treatment for three common ailments.

First, some background about exercise: The great thing about exercising every day that you eat is that this magic potion is not a shot or a pill. It does not involve a doctor burning or squishing anything in your body. There are no HIPAA forms, no insurance pre-certifications, and not even a co-pay. It’s as we say, easy and free. And drum roll please…exercise is active—not passive.

Here’s the Mandrola take on how exercise might treat three specific medical conditions: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr John M*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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