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Can online brain games keep you mentally sharp?

Staying physically fit is a priority for many people as they age, but one organ we often neglect to care for is our brain. Some subscription services offer online "brain games" that promise to keep you mentally sharp -- or even make you smarter. (CBS Austin)

Staying physically fit is a priority for many people as they age, but one organ we often neglect to care for is our brain. Some subscription services offer online "brain games" that promise to keep you mentally sharp -- or even make you smarter.

The booming market for online brain games often targets retirees looking to stay sharp in their golden years.

"The proliferation of these brain games -- the advertisements for them -- certainly gets people interested and paying attention," says University of Texas at Austin Psychology Professor Art Markman.

In his book, Brain Briefs, Markman looks at the science behind brain games.

"The research is really clear. Play a particular game you will improve at that game, but probably only at that game or games very much like it," Markman explains.

However, that doesn't mean similar exercises can't serve a purpose.

"I would look directly at the number seven and couldn't say the number seven," recalls Henry Kight. Kight lost brain function after a stroke last year.

"When I first had my stroke, I felt so limited," Kight explains.

A St. David's specialist designed exercises for the part of his brain the stroke weakened.

"All of the technical ability that I had before seems to have washed away, but it's still there. You just have to bring it back," Kight says.

Neuroscientist Zoltan Nadasdy explains, brain games can have important clinical uses. He's currently developing "games" that test special memory in patients with epilepsy. The research could lead to new methods in improving brain function, but it's not what you'd find from brain games promising to keep you sharp.

"What research shows is that the skill improvement is limited to the very specific game or skill we are playing," Nadasdy says.

In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission fined popular brain training site Lumosity $2 million for deceptive advertising. The Bureau of Consumer Protection said, "Lumosity preyed on consumers' fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer's disease," but didn't have the science to back that up.

"If your primary motivation is to stay as sharp as possible, as long as possible... there are other things and better things that you can do than playing brain games,'" explains Markman.

Markman suggests learning something new by reading a book about something you don't know much about. He also recommends taking on a new hobby or skill and prioritizing social interaction in your everyday life.

"You can go to the library and get a book for free. You can have a conversation with friends... for free. You don't need to spend money to stay mentally sharp and I think it's really important to recognize that," he says.

When it comes to brain health experts agree the things that don't cost you anything are just as good -- if not better -- than anything you could pay for.

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