February 12, 2019
Tony Dearing

It was absolutely the most boring Super Bowl ever.

But one super thing did result from that dull defensive battle won by the New England Patriots.

Tom Brady awakened the world to the power of brain training.

And it couldn’t come at a better time — especially for millions of aging Americans who face a far more formidable foe than the Los Angeles Rams.

I’m talking about the threat of age-related cognitive decline and ultimately, Alzheimer’s disease.

The threat of dementia is the No. 1 fear of adults over the age of 60, and with good reason. Some 5.7 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and unless we address this looming health crisis, that number is expected to grow to 14 million by 2050.

But we’re learning how to prevent Alzheimer’s, and one of the best defenses against this deadly disease is the same brain training program that Brady has used to win more Super Bowl rings than he can wear on one hand.

Perhaps because Super Bowl LIII didn’t offer anything more interesting to write about, the media became fascinated by the brain exercises that Tom Brady has done faithfully — and for a long time, secretly — to give himself a competitive advantage on the field.

“How does Tom Brady keep winning Super Bowls? It might have to do more with his brain than you think.”

That headline on CNBC.com was typical of the coverage tying Brady’s latest Super Bowl win not only to the way he takes care of his body, but even more on how he trains his mind.

For years now, Brady has been using cognitive exercises from BrainHQ to improve his focus, response time and decision-making.

But BrainHQ isn’t just for elite athletes who happen to be married to super models. It’s for everyone.

Including me.

I’ll never be mistaken for Tom Brady, but I’m on the BrainHQ site every day doing brain exercises, and have been since I turned 60 and began to notice my mind slipping in a way that I found alarming.

Now I’m not just about brain training. I do plenty of other things to protect my cognition, and I write about them regularly in this column, which is devoted to brain health, successful aging and prevention of dementia.

I take my brain health — and yours — seriously. If I recommend something, it’s not based on a celebrity endorsement. I want to see the science. Even more than that, I want to see results.

And for me, personally, of all the things I’ve done over the past three years to get my brain back to a place where I feel really good about my cognitive fitness and mental sharpness, the single biggest improvement came after I did what Tom Brady does, and took up brain training.

And I didn’t need a sportswriter to tell me that.

For those of us who are more likely to have our nose buried in a scientific journal than in the sports section, we’ve been seeing headlines about BrainHQ for more than a decade now. But those headlines tend to read more like this:

“BrainHQ brain-training program may help ward off dementia, study finds”
“Research links computer brain game to reduced dementia”
“Double Decisions computer game ‘could slow onset Alzheimer’s’”
In fact, after years of rigorous research, the brain training offered by BrainHQ has emerged as one of the most essential ways to protect against dementia.

In 2017, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine issued a white paper on the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia and concluded that based on what we know right now, the three best things you do to protect your mind are:

  • Get some exercise
  • Manage your blood pressure
  • Engage in brain training

Many older adults — to their cognitive peril — mistakenly think they’re meeting that third recommendation by playing Sudoku or doing crossword puzzles. There is nothing wrong with playing these kinds of brain games if you enjoy them. But neurologists say if the goal is to reduce your risk of dementia, these games don’t deliver they the cognitive benefit you’re looking for.

For that, you need serious brain training that challenges your mind in a way that strengthens your cognition by creating new neural pathways.

There’s not much credible on the market that meet that criteria. According to comprehensive survey of brain exercises and games targeting older adults conducted by Alzheimer’s experts in Australia and published in Neuropsychology Review, only BrainHQ had multiple high quality studies showing good results.

One BrainHQ exercise in particular, called Double Decision, was the one reported to reduce the incidence of dementia in the 10-year ACTIVE study, which Time magazine named as one of the “100 New Discoveries of 2016.”

Why would brain training help a quarterback win Super Bowls and also help a person interested in protecting against the risk of dementia? It’s not just about making the brain faster and more accurate as shown on standard cognitive assessments; it’s about changing the chemistry and structure of the brain to be healthier and more resilient.

In aging research, brain scientist talk about building a cognitive reserve, so the brain is stronger in responding the vicissitudes of aging. When it comes to sports, trainers now speak of cognitive conditioning much as they speak of physical conditioning – it improves performance and it helps with resilience from the stresses of the game.

BrainHQ has played a central role in my own personal journey toward better brain health, helping me to reverse what I felt was a precipitous cognitive decline.

I hadn’t expected to find myself in that pickle. Middle age was kind to me. When I was 40, I felt 30. When I was 50, I felt 40. But I did not weather my 50s well. By the time I turned 58, I felt 63. Age hadn’t caught up with me and my mind. It had overtaken us.

Brain training wasn’t my first resort. Other changes came first. I improved my diet. Got more sleep. Drank more coffee (which is great for the brain, by the way). And more water. Quit diet soda. Took up long, brisk walks. And meditation. And journaling. I was a man on a cognitive mission.

But more than that, I was my own experiment. I wanted to know what was actually working for me. So I didn’t dive into these things all at once. I phased them in, one at a time, and tried each for several months, to see if I could feel a difference.

All of these things helped, some more than others. I swear by all of them. (There were other things that didn’t work, and I quit them.) And all the time I was operating as my own personal brain lab, I kept reading more and more about brain training and BrainHQ.

Then, in November 2017, the newest research findings showed that among a group of 2,800 older adults, those who played a BrainHQ game called “Double Decision” were 29 percent less likely to develop dementia than the control group.

And in the case of a sub-group that was asked to do an additional eight hours of training, 45 percent fewer had dementia.

It was time to try BrainHQ. There’s a free version, and then you can subscribe by paying a monthly or annual fee. There are apps for iPhone and Android, although I prefer to go to the BrainHQ website and do the training on my laptop.

There are dozens of exercises designed to strengthen a variety of cognitive functions, including attention, memory, intelligence and navigation. You can choose different games, or let BrainHQ set up a personalized training plan, which is what I use. The exercises are challenging, and they stay challenging, leveling up as you become more proficient at them. You can train as often as you want, although BrainHQ says that training for 30 minutes three times a week is a popular choice among users.

By the time I took up BrainHQ, I was already feeling better about the state of my mind. Still, I was startled by how much more improvement I saw after I began brain training.

About three months after I started, I had to call someone I’d never spoken to before. Three days later, I had to call them again, and I remembered their phone number off the top of my head. I have never had that kind of recall.

When I felt my mind was still fraying, I began seeing a lot of typos in the emails I wrote. Those typos stopped. I also had begun the embarrassing habit of calling people by the wrong name. People I knew well. There were several instances when I referred to my wife by my ex-wife’s first name. Fortunately, not in front of her. That would not have promoted domestic harmony. Within months of brain training, that mis-naming stopped too, thank goodness.

Now please understand, cognitive decline and dementia are complex medical conditions with a multitude of possible causes. Brain training is not the silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. It’s really about embracing the kinds of healthy habits that protect heart health as well. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain. That’s what neurologists like to say.

And not all neurologists are entirely sold on brain training. Some say the evidence in favor of it still isn’t as strong as they want to see. Some say it’s more proven when delivered in group settings than when done individually at home. However, a study by the University of Iowa found no significant difference whether people trained on their own at home or with assistance in a clinic.

And yes, sure, it’s used in a lot of institutional settings. I’ve had a chance to write about several of the leading brain health programs in the country, and this is one of the things they have in common. They invariably include brain training, and usually BrainHQ. What does that tell you?

And there’s that National Academies white paper. If such a renowned and rigorous scientific organization has singled out brain training as one of the most promising protections against dementia, I am not going to quibble with them. I’m going to train my brain.

Yet, even with that kind of endorsement, it took Tom Brady to bring brain training into the national consciousness.

And even that might not have happened. When BrainHQ’s most famous customer first began using these cognitive exercises, he wanted to keep that confidential. Presumably so the competition wouldn’t know. Pro athletes are always looking for that little edge the other team doesn’t have.

The version of BrainHQ that Tom Brady uses is customized to athletic performance, rather than dementia prevention. And as his Super Bowl-winning ways continued, he began to talk openly about his brain training.

Someday, age will catch up with Brady on the field, but it hasn’t yet. At 41, he remains at the top of his game. And his commitment to physical and mental fitness is what keeps him there. He is maniacal about that. Some people have that personality type. In my own approach to brain health, I would plead guilty to that same trait.

So here is what I want you to understand, more than anything else. When it comes to keeping your mind sharp and reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s, you do not have to be a maniac. It’s never too late to start, and doing even one or few small things can make a big difference.

But they have to be things that work. And if you’re going to start someplace, you might want to begin with the things that have proven to be most effective.

That includes physical exercise. Get your body moving a little. Walking is fine. Or try tai chi, or chair yoga. When it comes to blood pressure, “know your number.” Have a salad with that sandwich rather than a side of fries. Treat yourself to a handful of blueberries or walnuts.

And if you want to be able to tell your friends how that Tom Brady guy has nothing on you, give brain training a try.

Neither you nor I is ever going to have to step up in the pocket to avoid a blitzing linebacker and throw a 20-yard strike downfield into an impossibly small window between two converging defenders.

But we can step up in our own way.

Everyone thinks the rate of Alzheimer’s is going up, and everyone is wrong about that. The rate of Alzheimer’s is actually going down, and has been for the past two decades, thanks to improvements in health behaviors.

Millions of Americans who don’t have Alzheimer’s right now would have had it if this were 25 years ago. But as we as a society became better educated, reduced the rate of cigarette smoking and gravitated toward other healthy choices, these people gained a level of protection that helps them fend off dementia.

That is not a promise that you won’t get Alzheimer’s. It’s an opportunity to lower your risk, and give yourself the best possible chance of beating this fearsome foe.

Channel your inner Tom Brady. Let Alzheimer’s know that you’re in the game, and you came to play.