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So what did you forget this time?

A friend’s name?
A birthday?
The essential ingredient you went specifically to buy at the supermarket?
An appointment?

The reality is, we all do it: forget, that is.
The trouble is though that some of us are just a little more forgetful than others.

So when is this a problem?
Is this something to be concerned about if you are in your twenties or thirties?
What if you are in your forties or fifties?
You are sixty plus -how does forgetfulness worry you now?

Regardless of age, we all forget from time to time and that is quite normal. Over 60% of us are pretty terrible at remembering names – even those people we have known for years!

Forgetfulness is something, which starts happening from our twenties – basically once our brain has finished maturing. It starts to shrink, not by much, but little by little, around 0.2% per year as we lose some of our precious neurons.

What is known though, is that how well we look after our brain, especially in our younger adult and middle years will make a significant difference to how well our brain works for us as we get older. Ignoring changes in our mental performance at our mid-life is something we do at our own peril. If you have realised that maybe, just maybe you aren’t quite as sharp as you used to be, well actually now is the perfect time to start doing something about it.

You have this marvellous plastic brain capable of forming new neural connections across our lifespan and by attending to those areas of cognition that might be showing a first few signs of rust, you can be saving yourself a whole heap of problems later on.

So what should you be doing?

A lot of people like brain training games. So, are they any good and which ones should you be doing?

It’s important to realise that brain-training games are not designed to make you smarter. Practice of a particular activity will generally make you better at what you are practicing. The difference in seeking effective cognitive training is finding a program that will induce a positive and long lasting improvement in a particular area of brain function.

Online training programs are becoming very popular and they are big business. Whilst no one will say that undertaking cognitive training will prevent dementia, there is now good evidence that brain training will help maintain and boost brain function. These effects may last for a few months. The message though, is like physical fitness, the benefits last while you continue to undertake the activity!

How much training is needed?

That depends. If you have noticed a significant change in your ability to remember information, the first thing to do is to have a check up with your doctor. If, the problem is that you are forgetting because you are not paying attention, then that is a different issue!

Cognitive engagement is what matters and that involves far more than signing up for a computer game, it’s about lifestyle.
If you just want something that will fill in 10 – 15 minutes while waiting somewhere, then engaging in a quick mental workout such as a brain game or Sudoku puzzle, is a great idea. Of course you would also benefit from doing some exercise or participating in a hobby too.

Which are the best brain training programs?

Again, that depends on your circumstances and your interests. Many of the programs offered now provide a free trial period so you can gauge whether you like the games and whether it is something you want to commit to.

This is because brain training does require commitment. To get the full benefit, your chosen program ideally needs to be one devised by neuroscientists or neuropsychologists. It needs to be a program that allows you to monitor your progress in specified area of brain performance over a period of time. Some programs require a 45-minute to one-hour session to be completed three to four times a week over a three-month period. If this is beyond what you are looking for then perhaps don’t expect to see the same level of improvement from a brain game that you can play for 10-15 minutes when it suits.

The future of brain training programs

Video-games will conjure up the thought of fun and entertainment for some people, addiction and social isolation for others. But video-games are huge and growing in popularity. Moreover gamers are being recognised as developing certain cognitive skills that can potentially be very helpful for education and brain fitness.

From here, neuroscientists are now looking to find ways to harness the best positive cognitive effects from video-games to develop highly effective, cost effective and engaging brain training games with specific outcomes that include social and emotional skills – so watch this space!

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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