Written by Michelle Jonna
Are brain games the key to better brain health? They’re definitely one of the things you can do to help keep your brain functioning better and help protect your memory from the effects of aging.
As you get older, you may notice that your memory seems to be faltering. It may become harder to remember a specific actress’s name during a dinner conversation or you might lose your keys or your glasses more frequently. It’s so common that it’s become a joke about aging that can sting, particularly when you’re on the butt end of it.
So what can you do about that? Can your memory function be enhanced or even restored to that of someone younger? While we’re not sure that brain games actually enhance the “health” of your brain, it appears that playing brain games can improve both your memory and your cognitive functioning.
One recent study found that online “brain exercise” can improve the cognitive function of older people and help seniors maintain cognitive multi-tasking skills that are increasingly valuable to today’s work environment.
“A University of California, Irvine-led study has found that online brain game exercises can enable people in their 70's and even 80's to multitask cognitively as well as individuals 50 years their junior. This is an increasingly valuable skill, given today's daily information onslaught, which can divide attention and be particularly taxing for older adults.”1
According to Harvard Medical School, brain games are “any activity that stimulates your thinking.” Brain-stimulating activities include word games like crossword puzzles or word searches; number games like Sudoku; strategy games like chess or backgammon; and creative activities like learning to play an instrument or painting an original picture. All of these activities have been shown to enhance mental processing, planning skills, short-term memory and decision-making.
Your brain is a living, evolving organ that is impacted by your diet, how you hydrate, and how well you sleep. It’s also affected by how you much you use it. In other words, you can change your brain as you treat it and use it differently. It’s what’s known as “neuroplasticity” and it’s something you can use to your advantage if you’d like to keep your brain health, memory and cognitive functioning at the highest possible levels.
If you live life in a repetitive pattern—following the same schedule, going to the same places, doing the same things day after day—you’re not challenging your brain. Even something as small as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand or taking a new route to the office can help keep your brain connections firing more often. Why not add a few brain training games to your daily routine to encourage your brain’s neuroplasticity?
In 2017, a group of Australian scientists decide to determine, scientifically and once and for all, whether brain training games really worked to improve brain health in cognitive healthy adults. What they discovered was that “current evidence supports that at least some commercially available computerized brain training products can assist in promoting healthy brain aging.”
Basically, you shouldn’t rely JUST on online brain games if you’re interested in seeing overall cognitive and memory improvement. Experts recommend that you also start with good nutrition, solid sleep, proper hydration and activities that are outside of your usual everyday routine if you’d really like to activate your brain cells and increase your brain’s neuroplasticity. Examples include learning a new language, managing your stress with meditation or yoga, and using mnemonics to remember important information.
Many creators of online brain games or brain training apps claim that with regular use, their products can improve memory. And while some of the research that these creators share in support of their products has come under question, Alzheimers.net has reviewed the research and said that “if you’re interested in preventing Alzheimer’s by keeping the neural connections in your brain strong, then games that challenge your working memory and mental agility can be an important part of your plan.”
So what kind of online games should you play? According to SharpBrains, a leading cognitive fitness market-research firm, there are three primary characteristics that must be present in any brain game for it to be of strong benefit: novelty, variety and challenge.
Online brain games and apps are a great place to start and many free options are available. Try sites like MentalUp for a variety of mental skill-building options, including games that claim to boost short-term memory, attention skills and logical thinking.