Game on Granny? Some notes on gaming the ageing brain
Tomorrow is World Alzheimer’s Day. Normally this day would pass me by without notice. This year is different. Not because I experienced Alzheimer in my family lately – my grandma, who did suffer from dementia, died a long time ago. But because I’m in over my head with writing about the ageing brain, and how seniors are told they can prevent Alzheimer by doing brain games. A few thoughts while writing:
- DON’T BELIEVE THE FREAKIN’ HYPE.
Basically old news for anyone who reads newspapers, but it can’t be told more often: brain games (such as Nintendo’s BrainAge, or the little games you find at websites such as neurocampus.com) can be fun, but they do not stave off dementia or Alzheimer’s. While I am no neuroscientist, reading all their papers points to a broadly shared consensus: yes, you can excel in little math exercises, but this hardly seems to have an effect on your daily life activities. Being socially, physically and intellectually active is probably better than sitting all day watching Omroep MAX Geheugentrainer. But you do not need neuroscientists to tell you this, let alone pay costly monthly subscriptions to be able to play their games. It’s common sense, and applies for everyone of all ages (which doesn’t mean that nursing homes shouldn’t pay attention: it’s appalling how seniors sometimes lack basic activities such as walking outside in the sunshine). What is healthy or not, is not really my concern or my area of expertise as philosopher (just don’t give me that righteous ‘sitting is the new smoking’ commandment, I enjoy both thank you). My point is rather:
- Health is not everything
The problem with these appeals to the elderly – for doing brain games, but also for remaining active by doing sports, exercising, and eating healthy – is the underlying idea that ageing requires you to do something with your brain. What popular neuroscientists tell us, is that the ageing brain is not a brain in decline, but a brain with opportunities – it is plastic so it can still learn and change! It only needs you to work it. And it is important! Because remaining active is not only good for you, it’s also good for society as it helps to decrease the (health) costs of the Grey Gulf! Brought as a story of empowerment – seniors should not be written off, cognitive decline can be thwarted! – it quickly falls prey to what we can call the ideology of health: You can improve yourself therefore you must improve yourself.
Brain games effectively prey on the fears of the worried well: often affluent baby boomers who are obsessed with health risks. Instead of relieving worries for cognitive decline, brain games rather perpetuate them; you’re never finished training your brain to prevent further decline. The downside of putting all hope into individualistic self-help interventions (such as brain games) is that they encourage you to become a health-obsessed narcissist. But mental health is not the same as (nor a necessary condition for) living a good life.
- What does getting older mean to you?
What gets lost, is a proper discussion on what it means to age well. The ideal of remaining as young as possible, with ageing framed as disease, doesn’t sound really fulfilling to me. Nor can it answer the inevitable existential questions that come with older age: what is a purposeful life? ‘Combatting’ ageing by working on your body and mind can be a coping mechanism for not having to face such questions. It leaves little room for cultivating ways of dealing with loss, decline, and the fragility of life. Acceptance is not part of the story. Nor is the realization that ageing comes with its own joys and qualities. A life full of experience is valuable, especially in a society where a fleeing, short-term focus is the norm.
Alzheimer’s is real and can be devastating for anyone involved. So is walking under a bus. Fears for future risks are part of life. When I reach the age when I start worrying about my foggy head (I could easily start now already), I hope I can resist giving in to these fears, and instead focus on what gives me joy and fulfillment. And I highly doubt that that would be these infantile brain games.