6 Best Brain Games to Keep Your Mind Sharp
These brain-boosting games are great for cognitive health.
As you get older, it's normal to notice some minor changes in your cognitive abilities. For instance, you may find as you reach your senior years that it's a bit more difficult to sustain your attention, multitask, find the right word, or recall information as quickly as you once did.
"Some changes in the ability to think are considered a normal part of the aging process," says the UCSF Memory and Aging Center. "We develop many thinking abilities that appear to peak around age 30 and, on average, very subtly decline with age."
However, according to Harvard Health Publishing, there are six key ways to help promote cognitive health. Their experts say that in addition to eating plant-based foods, exercising, sleeping well, reducing stress levels, and nurturing your social ties, you should also be able to boost your cognitive ability by actively challenging your brain. In fact, by using games that put your problem-solving skills to the test, you can help keep your mind sharp well into your golden years. Read on to learn which games are best for enhancing your cognitive health.
Word games are a great way to flex your problem-solving and vocabulary skills as you age. However, there may be benefits to choosing pen and paper word games over those you'll find online, says Vernon Williams, MD, sports neurologist, pain management specialist, and founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.
"I'm less inclined to suggest most online and social media-based gaming purportedly designed for 'brain-training' purposes. I say this because these modalities can get expensive and potentially addicting in a way that might have adverse brain health effects, which eventually reduce the overall benefit," he tells Best Life.
While there's absolutely nothing wrong with completing the daily Wordle challenge, try rounding out your routine with crossword puzzles, word finders, and other word games, he suggests.
Learning a new language is another great way to keep your mind sharp as you get older. Language-based games can put those skills to the test with time constraints, which can help build your brain's ability to process and recall new information faster.
"No matter how old you are or whether you're healthy or currently have a neurologic condition, science has proven that your brain loves to learn," says Williams.
Board games and card games
Research reveals that playing board games—think chess, backgammon, or Monopoly—can greatly enhance your cognitive abilities.
"Playing traditional board games has been shown to be related to a neural reorganization of brain areas associated with attentional control, working memory, and problem solving. Similarly, playing modern board games also seems to improve cognitive and executive abilities," says a 2023 study published in the journal PLOS One.
Card games such as bridge, poker, rummy, and euchre are similarly beneficial since they promote social connection, analytical reasoning, and short-term memory. By integrating these games into your everyday routine, you can help slow the changes to your cognitive ability.
Williams says that while many people turn to online games as a form of "brain training," this misses "a fundamental truth about brain health"—that one of the best things you can do to maintain optimal cognition is to get your body moving.
"Dynamic activities, such as competitive sports or cardiovascular exercise, are essential for optimal brain health across the lifespan," he tells Best Life.
That's why learning a new sport can be an ideal way to keep your mind sharp, while also promoting your broader physical fitness. Whether you choose the game of soccer, basketball, tennis, or pickleball, your brain will be challenged to keep track of a new set of rules and put them into action in real-time.
"Learning something new and challenging while regularly moving your body is healthy fuel for your brain. More and more research today confirms that these elements are also protective armor against cognitive dysfunction and neurologic diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease later in life," Williams says.
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Whether you prefer jigsaw puzzles or sudoku, cryptograms or math puzzles, these are a great way to improve your short-term memory, boost your processing speed, and recognize patterns. Taken together, these benefits can help build your brain's neuroplasticity, or its ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.
In fact, a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that adults over the age of 50 who did jigsaw puzzles saw a wide range of cognitive benefits.
"Solving jigsaw puzzles strongly taps multiple visuospatial cognitive processes including perception, constructional praxis, mental rotation, speed, flexibility, working memory, reasoning, and episodic memory," the study authors wrote.
Escape the room
In recent years, "escape the room" games—which challenge groups to solve a mystery, complete a task, or physically escape an enclosed space—have become a popular pastime. Experts suggest that games like this can be majorly beneficial for your brain if you do them often.
"There's increasing evidence demonstrating 'dual tasking' (such as simultaneous participation in physical and cognitive training activities), and progressively increasing a cognitive load with distractions and the pressure of limited time can be of significant additional benefit," says Williams.
Additionally, studies have shown that maintaining strong social connections can help build cognitive resilience as you age. By gathering a group of friends and heading for one of these immersive problem-solving experiences, you can enhance your cognition in more ways than one.