'I'm a Neurologist, and These Are the Games That Actually Make a Difference In Brain Health'

Woman playing games on her phone to improve brain health

Some healthy habits require a lot of discipline and commitment—we’re looking at you, strength training and healthy diet. But some feel like no effort at all—in fact, you may not even be aware that something you do on a regular basis is actually good for your brain’s health. Like playing games on your smartphone.

Cognitive decline is something that is becoming increasingly common among elderly people. As Columbia University reported in 2022, one in 10 older Americans has dementia.

While not every health condition can be ultimately sidestepped as we age, we can do what we can to prevent negative outcomes later in life. And in this case, protecting your brain health can be as easy as playing your favorite game.

Why Brain Health Is Important as We Age and How Games Can Help

“As we age, there is an increased risk of developing diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease and other degenerative disorders, so maintaining brain health is very important,” says Dr. Mary Ann Picone, MDNeurologist and Medical Director of Holy Name Comprehensive MS Center in Teaneck, New Jersey.

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As Dr. Picone says, “The greater the amount of cognitive reserve present, the better we can compensate for problems that develop. Keeping mentally active throughout life decreases the risk of dementia, and doing challenging work modulates risk.”

And one way to do just that? Playing so-called “brain games,” or games that can challenge the mind and keep it sharp.

“Not only can playing games be fun, but studies have shown that they can help in improving brain function. They can help to improve attention span and focusing ability, and video games can help with mental speed and the ability to react quickly to stimuli,” Dr. Picone adds.

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The Brain Games That Actually Make a Difference

Actually, according to Dr. Picone, there isn’t necessarily “one brain game” that makes a difference when it comes to brain health. As she explains, a variety of games rather than one is much more helpful since different games improve different areas of the brain.

“In general, the more complex the game, the better, since brain games help to stimulate neural repair and connections between neurons, specifically from the cortex to deeper cortical structures, which are often lost with aging,” Dr. Picone says.

So, what games should you be playing? Dr. Picone explains that Scrabble and crossword puzzles aid in vocabulary and verbal fluency. Lumosity can be helpful with information processing speed and reasoning skills. Chess requires focus and planning, and if played in person, it can boost socialization.

Video games such as any Super Mario games or apps like Candy Crush involve increased complexity and skill as you move onto more advanced levels, and it’s this challenge—learning new information and reacting to it—that can help improve neural connections, as well as hand-eye coordination.

The language app Duolingo involves the acquisition of new information and “is a useful and popular one,” as Dr. Picone says. She goes on to explain, “In general, the more mentally stimulating the game, the greater the benefit in helping to slow cognitive decline.”

If you’re already over 65, you might be wondering if it’s too late to harness the benefits of these brain games. But Dr. Picone assures, “It’s never too late to start playing games, but the earlier, the better.”

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Other Ways to Improve Brain Health

In addition to playing games, Dr. Picone says that what is most useful in improving and maintaining brain function as we age is a combination of exercise (particularly consistent cardiovascular exercise), maintaining social connections with family and friends, sticking to a healthy diet and avoiding unhealthy behaviors, like smoking, sedentary behavior and excess alcohol. Also, make sure to get plenty of restful sleep.

Next up, pick up 23 ways to boost your brain and keep it sharp at any age.