Many older adults enjoy “brain games” like backgammon, chess, and computer games. But can they help improve memory?
If you are like many adults, you enjoy a good crossword, a weekly card game, or even the latest addictive phone app game. You probably even relish the mental boost they provide.
But do these types of brain games help with brain health, especially for protecting against memory loss? Well, it’s complicated.
“The research so far has not found that participating in these various brain games alone will reduce your risk of dementia,” says Dr. Julie Brody-Magid, clinical director of the Memory Disorders Assessment Clinic at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. “But they may help with improving select brain skills and can play an important role in maintaining overall brain health.”
Games your brain plays
Brain games are defined as any activity that stimulates your thinking. That includes word puzzles like crosswords and Scrabble, but also traditional games like chess, Sudoku, and backgammon. It also includes creative outlets like painting, playing an instrument, or learning a language.
While these activities are mentally stimulating, their long-term benefits are still being debated. Some studies have found they may help delay dementia or slow its progression, while other research has found no connection.
The more convincing evidence is that brain games may help sharpen certain thinking skills that tend to wane with age, such as processing speed, planning skills, reaction time, decision making, and short-term memory, according to a study in the November 2016 International Psychogeriatrics.
“Many men don’t use these skills as actively as they age, especially if they have left the workforce. Therefore, learning to use your brain in response to other forms of stimulation can help strengthen valuable mental skills, which older men continue to need and rely on every day,” says Dr. Brody-Magid.
Healthy heart, healthy brain
The best thing you can do for your brain health — and to protect against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia — is to adopt and maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle, says Dr. Julie BrodyMagid, clinical director of the Memory Disorders Assessment Clinic at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. “Good heart health translates to better brain health,” she says. Data supports embracing multiple lifestyle factors, such as not smoking; eating a diet based on ample whole fruits and vegetables, like the Mediterranean and MIND diets; doing regular cardiovascular exercise; managing stress, and limiting alcohol. “It is also critical to managing blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels,” says Dr. Brody-Magid.
Building up reserve
Another way brain games may help with memory is by building up a cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is like a rainy-day savings account in your brain that you can store away and use when you need quick thinking. “Also, your reserve may even help provide resilience against age-related memory loss and dementia,” says Dr. Brody-Magid.
Based on current research, the best way to build more cognitive reserve is to get regular exercise and stay physically active. At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week can increase blood flow to the hippocampus, the brain region associated with memory storage. If you’re concerned you may not have 150 minutes to spare for exercise, rest assured any physical activity is better than no physical activity.
But brain games can expand the beneficial effects of exercise. In fact, research has found that the combination of exercise and brain games or another similar mental stimulus — such as pursuing more education, socializing, partaking in cultural activities, and discussing ideas — can build cognitive reserve better than exercise alone.
“In this way, participating in brain games actually can help with cognition, but it’s a team effort,” says Dr. Brody-Magid. “You can’t do it by doing crossword puzzles alone.”
Mix it up
Still, novelty is key. If you are already good at crosswords or bridge, your brain won’t be stimulated as much. “You need to do something else that forces your brain to work and learn,” says Dr. Brody-Magid.
You also need to participate in multiple types of engagement. “Don’t just focus on one new thing, either,” says Dr. Brody-Magid. “It’s just like exercising your muscles. If you only do biceps curls, your arms will get stronger, but your legs won’t.”