Can Mentally Challenging Games Prevent Cognitive Decline?

Consistent brain fitness connected to improved memory, reasoning and processing.

Every Sunday evening after church, 78-year-old Roger Knight has dinner with his two children and five grandchildren at his home in Alexandria. He plays chess with his 16-year-old grandson and does crossword puzzles with his 8-year-old granddaughter.

“Playing games is a way of having fun with my grandchildren," he said. “They keep me feeling young, especially when I beat them.”

In the same way that exercise is credited with maintaining physical health, mental exercise has been linked to slowing down cognitive decline that can come with age.

“Memory, reasoning and processing … are three cognitive domains which do decline with age,” said Catherine Diaz-Asper, Ph.D., Department of Psychology at Marymount University, who studies mild cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease. “However, I think the message here should be that by engaging in mentally stimulating activities you are helping your brain, irrespective of what those activities may be.”

Programs like ElderLink, a nonprofit partnership between Inova Health System and the Fairfax Area Agency on Aging Programs, can provide resources for seniors who are looking for mentally challenging activities, "We recognize that brain exercises reduce the risk of cognitive decline," said Trina Mayhan-Webb, director of the Fairfax County Department of Family Services’ Adult and Aging Division. "We provide evidenced-based, structured, fun activities to enhance cognitive memory skills."

“Research demonstrates that there are several steps aging adults may take to maintain and support brain functioning," said Tracey Smith-Bryant, Professor of Psychology at Montgomery College. "Remaining mentally engaged is essential. Think of the brain as a muscle and activate it daily.” She recommends apps like Lumosity and Elevate, and activities like chess, sudoku or working crossword puzzles.

AARP offers a brain health program called Staying Sharp, but cautions against believing that engaging in mentally challenging games is a magic formula for eliminating cognitive decline.

"Games can be fun and engaging, but they are not the answer to prevent dementia the way many people think due to advertisements they have seen for brain games," said Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP senior vice president of policy, and Global Council on Brain Health executive director.

"People who use their brain like a muscle, exercising it by thinking, learning new things and challenging themselves seem to build up [their] cognitive reserve as they age so they might be more resistant to adult cognitive diseases," Lock said.

Engaging in activities that stimulate your brain could delay onset of the symptoms of decline that some people experience as they age, said Lock. “Scientists describe that as cognitive resilience,” she said. “If you truly want to slow cognitive decline, choosing a healthy lifestyle with habits like regular exercise and physical activity, a heart healthy diet, regular sleep, social interaction, and effectively managing stress combined with engaging your brain is recommended."

There are a variety of games that target specific areas of concern such as memory or processing. "Certain games help you practice particular skills," said Lock. "If a game encourages you to work on a particular skill enough, and … what you do to play it becomes progressively more difficult, you will likely get better at those skills over time. That is even true for skills that generally seem to get harder as we age, like recalling names or the ability to pay attention."

“While the science is still developing on this issue, there is some evidence that high quality cognitive training can help you maintain your abilities because of the practice effects, and because that training becomes progressively more difficult so that you continue to learn new things.” said Lock.

“My recommendation would be to seek out varied activities that interest you and really make you think,” added Diaz-Asper .“You don't need to invest in expensive apps or computer training programs to see benefits.”

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