- New research shows that engaging games and puzzles can reduce the risk of dementia in older adults.
- Those who engaged in activities that exercised their brains were 9-11% less likely to develop dementia than their peers.
- Experts explain the results.
Sleep and healthy eating have long been studied for brain health. But now a new study is looking at some games and puzzles and how they can reduce the risk of dementia.
A study published in Open JAMA Network looked at a wide range of activities that stimulate the brain and how each can reduce the risk of developing dementia. The data was collected from a long-term study of older adults from 2010 to 2020. The study analyzed more than 10,000 people over the age of 70, 98% of whom were Caucasian. The results are therefore probably not representative of the general population.
At the start of the study, all participants lived in community settings (outside of nursing homes) and had no major cognitive impairment or signs of dementia. During the first year, participants answered questions about their contacts with close friends and relatives, leisure activities, and trips to places such as museums and restaurants.
Researchers assessed participants for dementia at regular visits throughout the study. They found that those who regularly participated in “adult literacy activities” (think: using a computer, taking classes, writing letters, or keeping a journal) and those who participated in activities that exercised their brains, such as games, cards, chesspuzzle or crosswordwere 9% to 11% less likely to develop dementia than their peers.
In contrast, the researchers found that the frequency of social activities and the number of close friends and family members were not associated with dementia risk. However, the study authors suggested that this could be because too few study participants were alone or isolated for an effect to be seen.
Why are some activities better for brain health than others?
The short answer is that it’s not quite clear yet, says Dale Bredesen, MD, neuroscientist and specialist in neurodegenerative diseases. “It probably depends on which parts of the brain are being stimulated and in what way. For example, processing speed-enhancing games have been found to be helpful, as well as certain memory and rapid decision-making games.” Also, whatever training is used has the greatest effect on that same skill, which may not be helpful for overall cognition, so choosing a similar training (e.g., speed or memory or language) is helpful to the improvement goal.
The benefit of some activities is their ability to tap into multiple areas of brain engagement (memory, critical thinking, etc.), says Michael Cuccaro, Ph.D., co-director of the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “Our brain quickly finds ways to perform certain activities to allow us to conserve resources. Those activities that hardly change will provide no benefit over time.”
The amount of challenge in various tasks is significant, especially as it deviates from normal activities, continues Cuccaro. “Furthermore, when mental activities incorporate social components, the effect is much greater.”
The researchers studied a wide range of activities, and those that were most strongly linked to a reduced incidence of dementia were those that required active engagement, adds Cuccaro. “I would add that the greatest impact will be activities that require active engagement of mind and body in various contexts with other people!”
How do puzzles and games help reduce the risk of dementia?
Puzzles and games, especially those that require critical thinking, problem solving and memory recall, have been linked to a reduced risk of dementia, says Patrick Porter, Ph.D, neuroscientist and founder of BrainTap. “These activities engage the brain by challenging it to find patterns, make connections, and think creatively. They require mental flexibility and encourage the brain to adapt and reorganize neural networks, thereby improving cognitive reserve.
Regular engagement in puzzles and games can also improve attention, concentration and memory, which are often impaired in people with dementia, Porter adds. “These activities are a source of pleasure and can help reduce stress, which is another important factor in maintaining brain health.”
Our brains make new connections all the time during development, Cuccaro says, and activities that constantly challenge and engage us will lead to sustained brain development and new ways of approaching challenges. “For many older people, keeping their brains fit is a result of different challenges and the more we use our brains for new and exciting activities, the more nimble and responsive they remain.”
What is the impact of social engagement on the risk of dementia?
Previous research has shown that social engagement, or lack of social isolation, is essential for maintaining brain health in old age. However, the results of this study did not reveal that social activities had an impact on the risk of dementia.
Still, there’s strong evidence that social engagement is key to reducing dementia, Cuccaro says. “As the authors pointed out, the lack of a strong association between social engagement and dementia was most likely due to study participants being very socially engaged at onset. On the contrary, I believe this study supports the importance of incorporating games, puzzles, and challenges into social settings.
The bottom line
There has been a long-held, persistent belief that cognitive decline and age are inevitable, Cuccaro says. “It is essential that individuals understand that cognitive and mental abilities can be changed by seizing opportunities to learn new things and take on new challenges.”
Engaging in mentally challenging puzzles, games and activities in a social setting has been shown to have powerful protective effects on brain health, Porter says. “These findings underscore the importance of maintaining an active and intellectually stimulating lifestyle, fostering social connections, and continually challenging our cognitive abilities.”
Importantly, while engaging in mentally stimulating activities and maintaining social connections can be beneficial, it’s equally important to take a holistic approach to brain health, Porter says. “This includes maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, managing stress levels and getting enough sleep.” These lifestyle factors, combined with mentally and socially stimulating activities, can provide a holistic approach to reducing dementia risk and promoting optimal brain health as we age.
Magdalene, Preventionassociate editor of , has a history with health writing from her experience as an editorial assistant at WebMD and her personal research at university. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience — and she helps strategize for success across Preventionsocial media platforms.