Brain Training and Games To Play

Theresa Fogerty
Brain games

For many years we’ve known that physical exercise keeps our bodies strong. What might have been underestimated is its impact on our brains.

Exercise reduces the odds of developing heart disease, stroke and diabetes. When it comes to your brain, it:
•    improves blood flow and memory
•    stimulates chemical changes in the brain that enhance learning, mood and thinking
•    changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills

Brain training

Clearly physical exercise can help your brain stay healthy. In addition, recent research indicates that mental exercise, often referred to as “brain training,” can keep our brains young and healthy as well. Some studies suggest that brain training activities have helped older adult brains remain mentally sharper for an additional 10 years.  

Cross-training

When we exercise, it’s important to cross-train our bodies to work all our muscle groups, and raise our heart rate for maximum health benefits. The same is true for the brain!

We know that different parts of our brain control different abilities and thinking skills. So, it is important to engage and strengthen different areas of your brain that impact various abilities. Brain training can improve:
•    Attention/Concentration – focus on a specific task and concentrate on the task long enough to accomplish it successfully
•    Thinking – process information, make connections, make decisions and create new ideas
•    Memory – gather, store, and retrieve information for short- and long-term use
•    Language – comprehend both spoken and written words and provide the skills necessary to receive and communicate information
•    Visuospatial Ability  – make sense of the world we see around us, such as shapes, angles, ideas and relationships
•    Executive Functions – plan, organize, evaluate and manage our day-to-day selves and interactions with others and our world to create results and solve problems  

Recommendations for mental exercise

Now that we know the areas of our brain that benefit from regular exercise, we need to know what type of activities work best for each.

Common questions we hear include, “What do you recommend as mental exercise?” and “Are crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and chess, enough to flex my brain muscle?”  Well, the answer is yes – and no. These types of learned activities that are repeated regularly, may in fact help maintain brain health. In that regard they are certainly worth your time.

However, in order to build cognitive reserve (neural networks that are resilient and can maintain function even when there’s damage to brain cells), it helps if you challenge yourself to advance from beginner level to mastery level. To really flex our brain muscles, we need to increase new learning opportunities.   

For instance, have you always wanted to learn French?  Or have you thought about becoming a Master Gardner?  Maybe take up Mahjong?  In all these cases you’d be learning new things rather than repeating familiar mental exercise activities. This helps to create that cognitive reserve.  Remember, the key to maintaining brain health as you age is to consistently learn new things.

To target and brain train the different areas of the brain consider the following games and activities:  

Games and Activies for Brain Training
Brain Domain Games Activities
Attention/Concentration card games, Uno, Bridge, Monopoly
 
balance your check book, calculate tips or sales discounts
Memory Stare,  Memory, Scene It?, Trivial Pursuit,  Guess Who?     dance class, Tai Chi, Zumba, cooking, shopping
Language Taboo, Scattergories, Catch Phrase, Balderdash, Boggle, Crosswords learn a foreign language, word-of-the-day, reading, writing class, book/movie club discussion
Visuospatial Ability jigsaw puzzles, word search, find the difference, video games art class, photography, shopping, cooking
Executive Functions chess, checkers, Sudoku, Clue, Sorry, Battleship, Connect Four trip planning, dinner party hosting, assembly of a new craft project, child/pet care

Taking steps to give your brain a workout can be fun but remember not to get fixated on one brain training activity. As with most things, variety and moderation are important.  Success is found in doing the things you enjoy, so choose wisely and give yourself permission to just say no to games and learning activities you don’t enjoy.

Keeping your brain healthy

In addition to your brain training, keep your brain mentally stimulated to lower your risk for memory and thinking issues as you age.  Include these activities in your daily life:

  • continue to get regular exercise
  • follow a heart- and brain-healthy diet
  • maintain your physical health
  • get proper sleep
  • reduce your stress level
  • spend time interacting communally

For more tips to keep you healthy as you get older, visit the Aging section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

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