No doubt you’ve seen ads for “brain-training” from companies such as Lumosity and Posit Science. These companies sell subscriptions for online brain-training exercises. They designed these exercises to improve your intellectual function in areas such as memory, brain speed and attention. Subscriptions run somewhere in the $15 per month ballpark. Lumosity boasts 50 million worldwide users.

It makes sense that these businesses are thriving. For a 65 year old entering retirement, life expectancy was 66 for males and 71 for females when they were born. Science, the ultimate genie in a bottle, has granted those retirees another 13 or 14 years. They can expect to make it to 81 and 84 respectively. What this means is cognitive decline in the later years has become a bigger issue than at any time in history. Sure we want to live long, but we want to do it with our faculties intact. And with Baby Boomers hitting retirement in large numbers, that’s a serious market to tap into.

If I sound cynical, it's because I am. But not completely. The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) Study offers some positive results. The ACTIVE Study by the NIH followed elderly individuals for ten years. It demonstrated that active training in reasoning and speed of processing slowed cognitive decline. In addition, subjects who received training reported less difficulty with daily living tasks than those who had no training.

That’s promising, and it deserves further inquiry.

But, remember my brother? He’s doing a lot of things right when it comes to living a long life. And if you look at that list, he’s also doing a lot to keep his mind active and engaged.  That’s where the ACTIVE study leaves a list of unanswered questions.

Subjects in the ACTIVE Study were randomized to specific brain-training exercises or no exercises. But that tells us nothing about the value of these exercises compared to a lifestyle of intellectual engagement. Would completing exercises at a computer be better for my brother’s brain than designing his desert garden? What about engaging in lively conversation about political matters he has researched deeply?  Or even playing a game of spades with his grandchildren?

That research hasn’t been done. But I would need to see it before I would tell my brother that he needs to spend $15 a month to maintain his cognitive health.

If your main source of mental exercise is watching Judge Judy, you would do well to add a little mental challenge to your life in the form of one of these subscriptions. But I believe you would do better to add things to your life that enrich your mind. Learn a new instrument or other skill. Start a book club focusing on a topic you want to dig into, and meet with people who will challenge you with their discussions. Devise a project that requires in depth planning and calculation.

No, I don’t have the research that shows those things are better than plopping in front of a computer for brain exercises every day. But my hunch is that they are, and they have the side benefit of making your life far more interesting.