Just as exercise can help slow the physical effects of aging, the brain also benefits from stimulation. Often, that stimulation can come from the work we do. But after retirement, much of the mental stimulation that keeps brains limber can decrease. One way to help improve memory and brain function as we age is to play brain games.
If someone you are related to lives with Alzheimer’s disease, you probably wonder if brain games work and the they can really help protect your brain’s health. While brain games alone won’t reduce your risk for dementia, they can help to maintain brain health.
What Are Brain Games for the Elderly?
Experts define brain games as any activity that stimulates thinking. They’re not just puzzles and board games, either, but include creative outlets like painting, playing music or learning a new language.
When it comes to playing brain games, neurologists recommend that seniors mix it up. They should engage in games that teach new information in addition to playing games (like crossword puzzles or trivia games) that require them to recall data they already know. Some great games to improve memory in the elderly include:
- Board games like Ticket to Ride, Scattergories, Hive, Catan and Cranium
- Card games like 21 or blackjack, war, crazy eights or gin rummy
- Mind games like Brain Racer, Connect 10, Brain Shapes and Rapid Math
- Puzzle books with word searches, sudoku or logic and crossword puzzles
- Word games like Scrabble, Hangman, Boggle, Words with Friends or Big Letter Bananagrams
- Online computer games and apps like Lumosity, Brain Fitness Pro, Fit Brains Trainer and CogniFit Brain Fitness
- Video games like Wii Fit, flight simulators or games that teach new skills like CodeMonkey and Rocksmith
Two other brain-stimulating activities for seniors include chess and jigsaw puzzles. Chess can help strengthen logical reasoning and problem solving, while jigsaw puzzles have been shown to help improve short-term memory functions. Plus, jigsaw puzzles have another important benefit for seniors: Finding and connecting two correct puzzle pieces releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness and well-being.
How Could Brain Games Help Seniors?
Much has been written about the role games might play in protecting a senior from memory loss. Scientists think that games that engage the mind can help protect the brain by building up “cognitive reserve.” Think of cognitive reserve as the brain’s mental savings account. Regular physical activity can increase blood flow to the hippocampus – the part of the brain that stores memory. Brain games can enhance and support the benefits of exercise. Some research has found that combining exercise and brain games can build the cognitive reserve even more.
The stimulation that brain games provide may also help guard against mental decline and improve memory, according to experts from the Alzheimer’s Association. Games can help protect brain health even for seniors already living with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
In addition to potentially improving memory in the elderly, creating a sense of well-being, and helping seniors maintain skills needed to participate socially, brain games can also:
- Foster a greater sense of independence
- Cultivate faster thinking skills
- Improve concentration levels, hand-eye coordination and motor skills
- Increase general knowledge
- Develop and support social skills
- Enhance reaction times
- Improve the ability to work independently or cooperatively
Do Brain Games Really Work?
While there’s no definitive study that conclusively proves that brain games really work, promising results do show that seniors who seek more active physical and mental pursuits have higher cognitive abilities than those who don’t. Though inconclusive, research has shown that learning new information, learning and honing skills and playing games can provide a brain boost.
Some scientists think extra mental activity that results from games might protect the brain by strengthening the connections between its cells. There’s no guarantee that brain games will prevent Alzheimer’s, but the games may help delay symptoms and keep the mind working better, longer. Studies of animal brains have shown that keeping the brain active may:
- Reduce the amount of brain cell damage that results from Alzheimer’s
- Support growth of new nerve cells
- Encourage nerve cells to send messages to each other
Genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors can all impact brain health. Many experts think the best way to keep your brain fit is to take a multifaceted approach. In addition to finding ways to engage your mind, they recommend:
- Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet
- Taking care of your physical health
- Staying physically active
- Participating in social activities
For those with memory issues, and seniors who want to age well, brain games can be a fun way to stimulate the brain.