News that a respected brain training app company has been fined for misleading its customers may only be the ‘tip of the iceberg’ warns James Ashwell, in his latest blog.
Lumos Lab, the company behind brain training app Lumosity, is paying a heavy price – $2million – for running ads suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, without having enough science to back it up. Lumosity’s fall from grace should act as a stark warning to other companies in the dementia market.
Generally speaking, many products which are tailored to dementia, memory loss, or the prevention of cognitive decline, lack robust evidence. There are several reasons for this but the main one, is that the dementia product market has, until recently, been a cottage industry, driven by the passion of a few people with personal experience trying to do their best with low levels of funding, rather than powerful corporations with plenty of money.
But as awareness of dementia and memory loss grows, the forgotten market grows with it, and the need for evidence and research becomes all the more pressing. Research needn’t be expensive – it could be a survey to customers asking if a particular product helped – but it needs to start in the early stages of product development.
I spent seven years caring for my mum who was diagnosed with early onset dementia in her fifties. If some of the products available now existed then, the dementia journey could have been easier for both of us.
My own research into the ‘forgotten market’ reveals that the better the evidence, the higher the demand. It’s no surprise to me that best-selling products such as day clocks and simple music players have a huge amount of academic rigour in their design. Whilst products which claim vaguely to be ‘dementia friendly’ without explanations or evidence, do not fare well – and there are many of them around.
But sometimes the evidence itself is confusing. There is still much debate, for example, as to the effectiveness of ‘brain training’. Studies have shown that brain training sessions over a series of weeks can improve cognitive skills: memory, reasoning and speed of processing. However, other studies have found that brain training games that you do at home (and not under a controlled, laboratory environment) had no beneficial effect on cognitive abilities.
In my opinion, brain training apps are a bit like vitamins. The evidence for their effectiveness can vary greatly, and so I probably wouldn’t want to start making too many claims that can’t be backed up with watertight research. However customers should still be presented with the facts so they can make their own informed choices.
As long as people with dementia and their carers aren’t misled or fooled into thinking it’s a ‘magic bullet’ these products can still provide comfort and hope for a condition to which there is currently no cure.
In my case, I knew that the evidence about vitamin pills helping to stave off dementia was sketchy but I still gave my mum every vitamin I could find that claimed to slow cognitive decline because it gave me hope. When you’re dealing with a condition as devastating as dementia, hope is sometimes all you have.
However, Lumosity’s fate highlights the importance of rigorous research and evidence. Everyone in this innovative, global marketplace needs to take note – if they don’t want to become the next Lumosity.