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Brain Games: Can They Really Keep Your Mind Sharp as You Age?

Do you seem to be a bit more forgetful these days? Is it that you just have a lot on your mind, or could this just be a part of getting older?

It’s no secret that as we age, changes occur in all parts of our body, including our brain. Many people worry about becoming forgetful, but not all people with memory problems have Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Forgetfulness can just be a normal part of aging.

To combat memory loss and improve aspects of cognition like memory, attention and focus, many older adults enjoy a good crossword puzzle, phone app game or other activity, but are these brain games really helping your brain—especially against memory loss?

Is it possible to keep your mind sharp by playing brain games?

Throughout our life, our brain is dynamic and constantly changing, said Jessica Langbaum, PhD, the co-director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute.

“Even as we age, our brain continues to develop new neurons and new neuronal connections,” she said. “Engaging in cognitively stimulating activities and brain training over the course of your life can positively impact how well your brain functions, including memory, attention, thinking, language and reasoning skills.”

Cognitively stimulating activities are mentally engaging activities or exercises that challenge your ability to think. Brain training, also called cognitive training, is designed to teach strategies and provide guided practice for improving a particular brain function (e.g., memory, attention, your ability to switch from task to task, speed of processing, etc.).

Consider cognitive training like physical boot camp for your brain.

“In addition to improving daily cognitive abilities, some forms of training may help adults perform everyday activities as well as show benefits for mood and well-being,” Dr. Langbaum noted.

At face value, brain training seems to be improving cognitive skills, but more research is needed.

“There are several research studies, including the PACT Study, that are examining whether a specific form of cognitive training delays or lowers the risk of impairment in adults ages 65 and older.” Dr. Langbaum said.

The difference between brain training and “brain games”

Most modern brain training programs use computer game or handheld device formats; some in-person programs use physical games or worksheets.

But there is confusion about the difference between brain training and brain games. As of recently, brain games have attracted quite a bit of controversy as many commercial companies have flooded the market touting their benefits. Unfortunately, many don’t live up to all the hype.

“Brain games may be fun and engaging, and you may even get better at them, but these improvements haven’t shown to convincingly improve cognitive abilities or improve overall functioning in everyday life,” Dr. Langbaum said. “For example, you may get better at Sudoku but doing Sudoku won’t help you with your cognitive abilities overall.”

Many commercial companies use the term very loosely, often tricking people into buying unproven games that have no positive effects on mental health or memory. The Federal Trade Commission has even fined some companies for making such false claims. As the old saying goes, “if it is too good to be true, it probably isn’t.”

“Playing commercially available brain games isn’t bad—you may even enjoy them,” Dr. Langbaum said. “With that in mind, if you’re interested in a commercially available program, look on their website for peer-reviewed studies about the program."

Brain games alone won’t improve cognitive function

While there are plenty of gimmicks out there that claim to keep your brain strong and mind sharp, there are other steps you can take that can support brain health. “The best things you can do is to get enough sleep, be physically active, eat nutrient-rich foods and find stimulating activities that interest and challenge you,” Dr. Langbaum said.

[Read “5 Simple Ways to Keep Your Brain Sharp as You Age” for more helpful tips.]

What brain stimulating activities are recommended?

Cognitively stimulating activities can be characterized by anything that requires attention, focus and engagement. From gardening to a game of chess and volunteering or playing with your grandchildren, there are a number of ways to challenge your brain. And there are a number of methods to try—whether on your computer or handheld device, in person or on paper.

“There are cognitive training programs targeting things like attention, memory or speed of processing that can improve that ability and everyday activities that rely on it, but as noted, make sure there’s sufficient evidence to support the training,” Dr. Langbaum said.

For those with memory impairment

If a loved one has a memory impairment, such as mild cognitive impairment or dementia, there may be cognitively stimulating activities that can help them maintain their ability to independently handle daily tasks or functions longer.

For example, engaging in music or craft activities can help those with dementia stay engaged and alert. Doing these activities in a small group setting provides social interaction and engagement which are also beneficial.

“It’s very important for people with memory impairment such as dementia to stay socially engaged,” Dr. Langbaum said. “Encouraging activities that the person with dementia finds interesting and enjoyable can improve mood and support their overall mental health.”

For those with mild cognitive impairment, “cognitive rehabilitation,” also called reablement, can help people carry out specific everyday, self-care activities. However, cognitive training programs focused on memory or speed of processing haven’t been helpful for those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Final word

Our brains have the remarkable ability to respond to changes over the course of our lifetime. Seeking out cognitively stimulating activities is one powerful way to positively influence your brain health and well-being.

Challenge yourself to do more complex versions of activities you love, try something new. It’s proof that you can teach an “old (or not so old!) dog” new tricks!

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