There is growing evidence of a link between regular participation in mental, cognitive, or intellectual activities, and a reduced risk of cognitive decline.
Alzheimer’s disease has no cure, and researchers continue to work toward treatments that can effectively stop the progression of the disease. At the same time, they are also looking at lifestyle factors to see if certain habits or activities can help keep the brain healthy and slow the progression of various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
What Can Game Playing Do for the Brain?
One activity that might help keep the brain healthy is playing brain or memory games, or even playing games in general. But the jury is still out on whether playing “Alzheimer’s games” can really have any impact on slowing cognitive decline. Most experts seem to agree that the games themselves can’t really do much to change the biology of the disease or prevent the damaging effects Alzheimer’s has on the brain.
That said, there are potential cognitive benefits for those who play games, but the actual game you choose may be of little importance in the bigger picture.
“Frank evidence for true reduction in cognitive decline is very minimal,” says Mary Sano, PhD, the director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and a professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
Dr. Sano believes you can potentially benefit in some ways from playing certain games.
“They increase the opportunity to have more social interaction,” Sano says, “and this, more than the game itself, may contribute to quality of life and possibly less cognitive decline.”
Can ‘Brain Training’ Games Improve Brain Health?
“Brain training games,” or computerised cognitive training consisting of programs of games designed specifically to exercise memory, attention, speed, flexibility, and problem-solving, have become increasingly popular in recent years.
In 2018, according to the market research firm SharpBrains, people spent $1.9 billion on digital brain health and neurotechnology apps. Makers of these popular brain-training games claim that they can help ward off cognitive decline by keeping your brain sharp.
Scientists remain sceptical about how effective these brain-training games really are in improving brain health.
“Few studies can show that getting better at a brain game transfers to everyday activities of daily living,” says Kimberly D. Mueller, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“That said, just like playing regular games, it is a vehicle for learning something new or challenging your brain,” says Dr. Mueller.
“Based on what we know about how the brain works, learning new things with repeated practise, or challenging the brain in new ways, can strengthen connections between the neurons, or brain cells.”
What Science Has Shown About Game Playing and Cognition
While long-term research is still needed to determine whether specific games can play a role in keeping the brain healthy – and how or if timing is a factor – preliminary studies appear to show a link between game playing and a lower risk or delay of at least one type of age-related memory loss.
Mentally stimulating activities like using a computer, playing games, crafting, and participating in social activities are linked to a lower risk or delay of age-related memory loss called mild cognitive impairment (MCI, often a precursor to dementia, including Alzheimer’s), and the timing and number of these activities may also be important, according to a study published in August 6, 2019, in Neurology.
Researchers found that engaging in social activities, such as going to the movies or going out with friends, or playing games in both middle age and later life, were associated with a 20 percent lower risk of developing MCI.
In addition, the more activities people engaged in during later life, the less likely they were to develop MCI.
That said, study authors point out that the study is observational, so it’s not possible to determine a cause-and-effect relationship. It’s possible that instead of the activities lowering a person’s risk, a person with mild cognitive impairment simply may not be able to participate in these activities as often, so further research is needed to investigate these findings.
Doing puzzles may also be a way for older people to keep their mental function sharp. Findings from two linked papers published in the July 2019 issue of the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry suggested that regular use of word puzzles (such as crossword puzzles) and number puzzles (like Sudoku) helps keep our brains working better for longer.
The studies showed that the more regularly participants age 50 and older engaged with the puzzles, the better they performed on tasks assessing attention, reasoning, and memory. Study authors can’t say that doing these puzzles necessarily reduces the risk of dementia in later life, but their research supports previous findings that indicate that regular use of word and number puzzles help keep our brains working better for longer.
Even among very old individuals, these activities appear to have preventive benefits. A study published in July 2021 in Neurology showed that, among 1,903 people without dementia who were an average age of about 89, a “cognitively active lifestyle” – which involved reading, working on puzzles, and playing board games, checkers, or cards – could delay the onset of dementia for up to five years.
Taken together, what do these findings mean? “Research shows us associations, not definitive proof,” explains Aaron Ritter, MD, the director of clinical trials at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. “But any way that you slice it, the data is pretty strong. It’s pretty definitive that people who use their brains, do activities, and socialise have a significantly reduced risk of developing dementia.”
“Card games or Trivial Pursuit or other board games where there is social interaction is a double whammy,” says Mueller. “We know that cognitive activity is good for the brain, social activity is good for the brain and for well-being, so pairing the two makes excellent sense,” she adds.
Ultimately, memory games and cognitive activities are just one way to help protect brain function.
Preserving cognition and preventing memory decline involves regularly getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and having enough exercise, and the more of these habits you incorporate into your daily life, the better.
A Few Games to Try If You’re Ready to Challenge Your Brain
Different games appeal to different people, and it’s important to have fun while playing. If you don’t enjoy a game, or you find it gets boring with repetition, try something new. Or try a more challenging version of a game you know you like so your brain works harder.
Crossword puzzles help you build a bigger vocabulary. Solving them also requires you to use your memory. When we search our minds for a word, this can also trigger memories, which can make us happy as well as strengthen neural connections.
You can find crossword puzzles in newspapers or on newspaper websites or by downloading their apps. USA Today’s puzzle allows you to choose a skill level (in “regular” mode you are given hints) and The New York Times offers both free games and a subscription service that gives you access to an archive of more than 10,000 puzzles.
Sudoku is played by filling in a 9×9 grid with numbers. Each grid comes with some prefilled numbers. You solve the puzzle by filling in the empty cells with a single-digit number (1 through 9) that allows for each row, column, and region to be completed without any duplicate numbers in them. (Even though numbers are used, there is no arithmetic involved in playing Sudoku.) Completing a Sudoku puzzle involves using logic and working memory (the ability to hold information in your mind over brief intervals).
You can find Sudoku grids in daily newspapers, in print or online. The New York Times releases three free puzzles in three skill levels – easy, medium, and hard – each night on their website.
Doing a jigsaw puzzle engages both sides of your brain: the right, which is the creative side, and the left, which is the logical side. Solving them improves visuospatial functioning. Puzzles are also relaxing. Jigsaw puzzles are also fun to do with friends, and the social interaction is great for brain health.
In this classic game, players earn points by constructing words by placing letter tiles on a grid. Each new word on the grid must be connected to words already in play, as if you were creating a crossword puzzle. Playing the game requires logical thinking and strategising about where to put each word on the board. Getting together to play is also a great opportunity to socialise.
This memory game is played on an electronic disc, which has four coloured buttons, each of which plays a different tone when pressed. In each round, the device lights up one or more buttons in random order. Players must reproduce the random sequence by quickly pressing the buttons in the correct order.
Players try to conquer the world by controlling every territory on the board in this classic strategy game for two to five players, using sets of armies, dice, and cards. During each turn players get and place new armies, launch attacks, and fortify their positions.
Azul is a tile-placement game in which two to four players compete for the highest score by claiming tiles and arranging them on a board to score points. You earn extra points for collecting sets of the same colour of tile or creating particular patterns. And you lose points for taking tiles you can’t use. It’s a short game that requires a lot of decision-making, which keeps your brain firing.
Lumosity is a brain-training program consisting of more than 60 cognitive games that are both fun and challenging. Used worldwide by more than 100 million people, Lumosity offers games designed to exercise memory, attention, speed, flexibility, and problem-solving. You can play on your phone or tablet by downloading an app.