Jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, chess and other problem-solving and memory games that stimulate your brain aren’t just fun—they may produce lasting benefits. A 2014 study found brain exercises helped older adults maintain reasoning skills and speed of cognition 10 years after the research period came to an end.
Here’s why engaging brain exercises boost cognition, plus six exercises to try today.
What Are Brain Exercises?
A brain exercise is any activity that engages your cognitive skills. Online brain games are popular and offer a wide variety of imaginative exercises designed to challenge your memory, focus and problem-solving skills, but tactile games like bingo and jigsaw puzzles and hobbies like model building also stimulate important types of memory skills. The key is that they must be difficult, but not too difficult.
“It’s important to engage in mentally challenging activities that allow you to constantly learn and get better,” says Denise Park, Ph.D., professor and director of research at the Center for Vital Longevity in the School of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Texas in Dallas.
Park conducted a study where different groups of older adults (ages 60 to 90) learned digital photography and quilting—new activities that required complex planning and learning—and found that, over a period of 15 hours a week for three months, these adults enhanced their memories.
“It’s important to have the optimal amount of challenge to maintain a healthy mind,” says Park. “If there’s too much, you will get stressed out and stress can be damaging to the cognitive system. But if there’s too little, there may not be any gain. Adding novel behaviors that you never performed before helps build new neural circuits that will be built to handle that challenge.”
Benefits of Brain Games for Aging Adults
Working at brain-challenging exercises won’t reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease or other kinds of dementia, nor will it reduce progression rates of these diseases, says Zaldy Tan, M.D., director of the Cedars-Sinai Memory and Aging Program and medical director of the Jona Goldrich Center for Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
But they do provide significant benefits and can make your life better, he says.
A Workout for Your Mind
Brain games stimulate different cognitive functions, such as executive function and processing speed, in older adults. And they can enhance your life in other ways. “They can help your social life, particularly in group trainings that provide socialization that otherwise you won’t have,” says Dr. Tan. Similar to exercising in a workout class with a friend, the experience itself is enhanced by being with other people.
When you play a stimulating game with other people, you get the added bonus of companionship, which provides protective health benefits for older adults, according to several studies.
What’s more, socializing itself has a cognitive component to it, says Park. “When you’re engaged in a social situation, you are stimulating multiple cognitive systems at the same time. You’re composing sentences, learning new names, remembering what the person you just spoke to told you about their work or family, paying attention to the broader party scene and maybe even balancing a plate and drink while in high heels. A lot of inter-related cognitive work is going on,” she says.
A Sense of Control
Brain exercises can play an important role in creating a positive outlook for older adults especially for those who are retired or are dealing with illness.
“People need purpose and a sense of control,” says Dr. Tan. “If they are losing their memory, or they’ve received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, they might feel they have no control over it. Brain exercises and games can give them a chance to feel like ‘I’m in control here, and I can improve,’ and this will improve their mood.”
New Brain Connections
“I tell patients, ‘Challenge your mind,’” says Dr. Tan. “If you are an accountant and numbers are easy for you, take an art class. If you’ve been a neurosurgeon for 30 years, learn a new language. For a neurosurgeon, that’s more challenging than brain surgery. Challenge your mind so that, at least in theory, you’ll develop new synapses with every new thing you learn.” (Synapses are the spaces between cells through which cells connect and communicate.)
But for these new brain connections to be sustainable, the activity also has to interest you, he adds.
6 Great Brain Exercises to Try
“Each brain exercise targets a different part of your cognition,” says Dr. Tan, making the analogy to different kinds of exercise. “If I run on the treadmill for 30 minutes every day, I won’t necessarily improve my core like I would from doing pilates. To be physically fit, I have to do a couple of different kinds of exercise. The same is true for brain exercises.”
1. Do a Crossword Puzzle
When you attempt a crossword puzzle, you use verbal memory as you seek words that match a certain number of letters that fit descriptive phrases. One study in the Journal of the International Neuropsychology Society found a possible connection between completing crossword puzzles and the delayed onset of accelerated memory decline in people who developed dementia.
Also, the range of difficulty in available crossword puzzles is huge—starting at mini crosswords of easy three- or four-letter words.
2. Play an Online Brain Game
Luminosity, Cognifit, Sharpbrains, BrainHQ and others provide free brain games daily—and many more for people willing to pay for a subscription—that challenge memory, attention and concentration skills. Does playing these games lead to long-term cognition improvement? It’s not known for certain, but they are engaging and fun. These word, number, speed, math, problem-solving and shape games often have time limits, which escalate the challenge, along with colorful graphics and cheerful bloops and bleeps (or a computerized voice exclaiming, “Good job!”).
Video games can be beneficial as well. “Video games can be great, particularly because so many start out at an easy level and become more challenging with practice, and are essentially cognitive training,” says Dr. Park.
3. Start a Jigsaw Puzzle
Whether they’re easy or complicated, jigsaw puzzles tap into many “visual-spatial working memory” skills—seeing and remembering which pieces fit into similarly shaped spaces—says Dr. Tan. To that end, a 2018 study in Frontiers of Aging Neuroscience showed that working on jigsaw puzzles engages multiple cognitive abilities.
4. Build a Model or Start a Knitting Project
Tactile hobbies like model building and knitting utilize procedural memory, which includes understanding, remembering and performing a sequence of actions, says Dr. Tan. As a bonus, you end up with a finished product that showcases your skills.
5. Join a Card Game
“Many well-loved games involve significant cognitive challenges,” says Park. “When you play bridge, you have to remember who has played what cards, develop your own strategy while keeping in mind the intentions of fellow players, and keep in mind a complex point system for gains and losses.” Other cognitive-enhancing games for older adults include mahjong, chess and bingo.
6. Learn Some New Dance Moves
Learning complex dance moves is a cognitive challenge as well. “You have to remember and match long sequences of body movements to the tempo and mood of the music, as well as to adapt to your partner’s moves,” says Park. “It’s tactile, visual, motor and auditory, and it has the added benefit of improving your cardiovascular system.”