Dual n-back is a working memory exercise that has been shown, in more than a decade’s worth of scientific research, to deliver significant cognitive benefits. While many young people view dual n-back as a way to increase their IQ, and thus gain a competitive edge at school or at work, there is also an exciting opportunity for older adults to rely on dual n-back training to fight age-related cognitive decline. This is important, not only because cognition is critical for everyday functioning, but also because scientists have discovered surprising correlations between cognitive performance and mortality, psychiatric disease, and many other health outcomes.
Cognitive Aging Is a Big Issue
It is widely known, among cognitive scientists, that intelligence — or “general cognitive ability”, as we’ll refer to it in this article — declines as we age. In fact, cognitive aging is arguably one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. This is not only because cognitive impairment can greatly affect older adults’ quality of life, but also because, as a result of rising life expectancy, older adults represent a growing proportion of society. In the United States alone, for example, the number of older adults with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to more than double from 6.1 million in 2020 to 12.7 million by 2050.
Not only is cognitive ability one of the strongest predictors of work success, but it has also been shown to correlate with older adults’ ability to perform tasks that are required for independent living — such as shopping, arranging transportation, filling out forms, reading street maps, understanding technical documents, preparing food, and managing personal finances.
More recent studies have gone further and explored cognitive decline as a predictor variable, rather than a consequence, of health outcomes. The results of these studies are surprising, but consistent: Higher cognitive ability is clearly associated with positive health outcomes later — sometimes even decades later. This is true for overall mortality rates, for example, and for the incidence of a large number of specific health problems, including psychiatric ones.
It’s not clear yet why this relationship exists, but one plausible hypothesis, supported by initial data, suggests that higher cognitive ability promotes the acquisition and maintenance of behaviors that are conducive for health, such as proper nutrition, exercise, and medication. Indeed, caring for one’s own health is akin to a complex job that requires skills in problem solving, planning, and decision-making.
Cognitive Training to the Rescue
Given our aging societies and the importance of cognition for everyday functioning and health outcomes among older adults, there is a strong case to be made for trying to stave off age-related cognitive decline. But how do you do that? Until recently, it had been thought that general cognitive ability was impervious to cognitive training. And, indeed, you should exhibit a healthy dose of skepticism toward any commercial “brain game” which claims to produce cognitive benefits that generalize to other tasks. In 2008, however, Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl published a ground-breaking study which showed that a specific cognitive exercise called “dual n-back,” designed to put maximum stress on working memory, led to a statistically significant rise in IQ. More than a decade’s worth of research, published in top peer-reviewed journals such as Nature, has largely corroborated the gist of their initial findings.
What’s remarkable about cognitive training is not only that it works at all, but also how time-efficient it is. In a meta-analysis from 2014, for example, Julia Karbach and Paul Verhaeghen compared the benefits of cognitive training against those from aerobic exercise, which is similarly known to have cognitive benefits. They found that a mere nine hours of cognitive training was comparable, in its cognitive impact, to a five-month regimen of daily 45-minute aerobics sessions! (Note that this is not meant to discourage you, or any older adults in your family, from exercising. After all, physical exercise has numerous non-cognitive health benefits as well. Indeed, we strongly encourage everyone to engage in both cognitive training and physical exercise.)
How to Help Older Relatives
You probably have parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles who might benefit from dual n-back training. If so, why not share the N-Back Challenge with your older relatives and encourage them to take it on? Here are a few ideas on how you can help them get the most out of it.
Nudge them to invite friends along for the ride. As we’ve argued in our article on how to get through 20 sessions of dual n-back successfully, it’s generally a good practice to tackle the N-Back Challenge together with friends. For cognitive training among older adults, in particular, a meta-analysis from 2014 suggests that a group setting improves both the objective and subjective cognitive results. By implication, you should try to get both of your parents or grandparents to enroll for the N-Back Challenge together. Even better, encourage them to invite their friends as well!
Make sure they understand the game mechanics. The dual n-back game mechanics are quite tricky, and, unfortunately, many people give up on cognitive training before ever having mastered them. This is even more true for older adults. Hence it’s important that you check up on your older relatives to make sure they’ve truly understood how dual n-back works. Or, even better, walk them through the game mechanics in a live tutorial session!
Consider turning on instant button feedback. Instant button feedback, which you can turn on in the advanced settings, is a popular feature that is especially useful for those who initially struggle with the game mechanics. If you remain unsure if your older relatives have truly gotten the hang of dual n-back, consider turning it on for them, if only temporarily. (For those who have already mastered the game mechanics, we recommend turning it off, at least during their first 20-Day Challenge, to ensure that the game experience approximates the design of the scientific studies.)
Help them select a non-English voice. The default language of the N-Back Challenge is English, which your older relatives may not speak well (or at all). But here’s some good news: Your older relatives should be able to practice dual n-back and complete the Challenge regardless! All they need to do is visit the voice selection settings and choose a different language. The visual interface will still be in English (which implies, among other things, that you will likely need to explain the game mechanics to them yourself), but the letters during gameplay will now be read out in whichever language your relatives are most comfortable with.
Consider reducing the game speed. As we age, our processing speed tends to decline. By implication, playing dual n-back at the regular game speed might prove too challenging for your older relatives. If so, have them visit the advanced settings and reduce the game speed from 1x to 0.5x. What typically happens is that, once older players have completed a few sessions, they are eventually able to move up the game speed to 1x — a meaningful achievement in and of itself!
It’s Never Too Early to Get Started
The main objective of this article has been to elucidate the why and how of getting your older relatives to embark on a dual n-back training program. But we’d also like to talk about you.
It had long been thought that cognitive decline starts setting in only late in life. Some researchers put the start date at around 50 years, others as high as 70 or later. In fact, however, your general cognitive ability starts declining in your twenties and thirties already!
The decline is masked by a continued rise in knowledge, which initially more than compensates for your declining general cognitive ability. Don’t let your rising performance on cognitively challenging tasks, such as management, teaching, or engineering, fool yourself: The unfortunate truth is that you really are getting a little bit less smart with every passing year. By implication, we encourage you to start practicing dual n-back as early as possible — and then to keep it up throughout your life!