by Karen D. Sullivan, PhD, ABPP
Older adults are increasingly aware of brain health and are actively seeking
to learn and apply scientifically supported strategies in their everyday lives. Staying mentally sharp outranks issues, such as Social Security and physical health, as a priority in older adults.
In a 2013 AARP study, 70 percent of older adults stated while they preferred to learn from doctors how to keep their brain strong, the dearth of accessible, scientifically-valid information required they instead obtain this information primarily from popular magazines and commercials. This statistic is concerning to advocates, because the content of these messages is likely both purposefully difficult to understand and sensationalized. Corporations whose central motivation is not senior care but selling a product often sponsor these media messages. Such senior-targeted, for-profit tactics not only highlight such organizations’ questionable integrity but perhaps of at least equal concern exponentially increases the risk of financially exploiting one of society’s most vulnerable segments-older adult consumers.
An $8 billion marketplace of “brain fitness” products has developed over the last 10 years. Supplements, computer games and phone apps promise to maintain and enhance brain functioning and, occasionally, prevent or reverse brain diseases, including dementia. These products offer a “one pill” solution based on the misconception that a single intervention stalls the multifactorial processes of brain aging or instruct older adults to play a “stimulating game” in front of an electronic device alone at home.
This one-size-fits-all approach neglects the complex interaction of genetic and lifestyle factors known to influence brain health throughout a lifetime (DNA, cardiovascular health, stress, education, diet, exercise, sleep) that older adults must know and understand if they are to age successfully.
Empirical support for the efficacy of brain-fitness training programs improving cognition is surprisingly poor. Experts argue that exaggerated or misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults for commercial purposes. In a recent survey of 1,037 older Americans, memory loss was cited as their No. 1 fear, more so than being buried alive, snakes and terrorist attacks. The American Psychological Association predicts that “dementia-related anxiety” is on the rise and may soon become its own clinical disorder. These fears create a ripe opportunity for marketers.
In 2014, 73 psychologists and neuroscientists from around the world wrote an open letter to companies marketing “brain products,” stating they are exploiting customers by making “exaggerated and misleading claims” that are not based on sound scientific evidence. The authors concluded with this statement:
“Our biggest concern is that older people are making choices—both about how they spend their money and on how they spend their time—based on this kind of information that … is not well-grounded, it’s a serious concern, and it can feel like people are being exploited.”
Take your power back: Be a cautious consumer of brain health news. Remember that the media generally reports news in snippets, only conveying the sensationalized highlights. Seek primary sources with google.com and inform yourself on the big picture of an issue before believing any “too good to be true” claims.
Take your money back: So-called “smart drugs,” including “brain enhancing” over-the-counter drugs have consistently failed in clinical trials and may even be unsafe. Spend your money instead on high quality fresh, whole foods or new walking shoes. Diet and exercise are much more realistic, and affordable, ways to improve the health of your brain.
Take your hope back: There are many things you can do to genuinely improve the health of your brain that are completely free and backed by science! A significant decline in brain functioning as we age is not normal and is largely related to modifiable risk factors that can be reduced by more informed decision-making. Commit yourself to becoming more aware of brain health by seeking out trustworthy and reliable sources of information. Feel confident and hopeful that YOU can make a difference in the health of your brain.