Brain Games Aren't the Best Way to Keep Your Mind Fit—Here's What to Do Instead

There isn't a definitive answer yet, but experts agree: We all need a brain fitness regimen to stay sharp as a tack.

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You keep your body fit with physical activity, but don't forget about your brain. While improving physical fitness helps your brain, so too does improving mental fitness. Experts say it's never too early—or late—to start a brain fitness regimen to stay sharp into old age.

Brain health should be on everybody's radar because, while your brain is technically an organ, it's similar to the other muscles in your body. That is: If you don't use it, you'll lose it.

"Studies show that staying mentally fit is important for long-term cognitive health, but the difficulty is figuring out exactly how best to do it," said Aaron Seitz, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Brain Game Center at the University of California in Riverside.

Enter: brain games. There's been an explosion of these games on the market recently. (Just type "brain games" or "memory games" into your app store and you'll see hundreds of options.) Yet research isn't clear about which brain games work best (and for whom), if they make a substantial impact, or if they work at all. Read what psychologists and neuroscientists say about brain games, and their preferred ways to keep your brain fit on the daily.

Cognition changes as we age.

Everybody jokes about not being able to remember names as they get older, or forgetting where they put the car keys, but unfortunately, there's truth behind the teasing. "As you age, your cognitive skills tend to decline," said Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University. She says natural signs of mental aging can often include weaker memory or hand-eye coordination compared to when you were younger.

Surprisingly, these changes start as early as your 20s. "Almost every aspect of your ability to remember, tend to things, and process information quickly declines," Seitz said.

Of course, not everybody's brain changes the same way, at the same time, or at the same pace; which is why you see wide variability in mental fitness among older adults. "While genetics and other factors play a role, one component of why some remain cognitively fit for longer may be the activity their brain has engaged in," Seitz explained.

Do brain games and apps have benefits? The jury's still out.

To provide cognitive activity, we've turned to brain games, ranging from apps to physical board games and puzzles. According to Seitz, there's no question that people do get better at these games. The real question, though, is whether playing these games are just making us better at the specific game or actually helping us improve real-world tasks that involve memory, attention, and other aspects of higher cognition.

So far, studies have been mixed, with half finding positive results, the other half finding none. "Because the training methods in all of this research are different, it's hard to draw conclusions," Seitz said.

One factor that can diminish the efficacy of these games is individual differences among us. "We suspect that different people will need different types of training," Seitz continued. "If you think about diet and exercise routines, some things work better for some people than others, and the same is true with brain games." That's why the Brain Game Center is enrolling 30,000 individuals to find out if brain games work, as well as why they work and for whom they're best suited. (Curious and want to participate? Join their Brain Game study.)

Regardless, many experts recommend brain games. "While some studies show that brain training games are not effective, the recollection and work that the brain does during these games keeps your mind fresh and alert," Avena said, adding that while anybody can benefit from them, they're most beneficial for older adults due to their declining cognitive function. As a result, "the brain functions that you practice during these games—and the repetition of them—can help improve response time and sharpness of your brain."

Some helpful games to try? They don't need to be trendy, online, or cost a lot of money. Avena points to familiar (and much-loved) activities like Sudoku and crossword puzzles, which keeps the brain sharp by focusing and concentrating to find the right answer.

Meanwhile, if you challenge your brain to do something new, like learn another language, you'll help improve brain structure and neuroplasticity; so diving into these new-to-you tasks certainly holds merit.

RELATED: What Mindfulness Does to Your Brain: The Science of Neuroplasticity

What to do every day for better brain health.

One reason brain games don't always prove effective in studies is many don't challenge the brain enough. "Many lack the complexity and level of engagement that charges the brain forward," said Stacy Vernon, M.S., LPC, a clinician with the Brain Performance Institute and The BrainHealth Project at the University of Texas at Dallas.This is because the brain thrives on regular challenges.

What the brain really needs—the absolute best thing you can do stay sharp—is to learn something new every single day. "If you want to be proactive about brain health, the most consistent advice is to learn a new thing every day," Seitz explained.

That may sound extreme, but the objective is to keep challenging the brain, especially when you get good at something. Once that happens, try another activity that forces you to start over and be challenged by something new. Learn a new instrument or a new language. "It's the challenge, not just the activity, that's the most important thing," Seitz said.

The best way to know if you're being challenged? Messing up. "If you're making mistakes, correcting them, and improving; that's the activity you should be doing for your brain," Seitz concluded.

RELATED: Doing Household Chores Can Help Your Brain Stay Younger and Healthier for Longer, Study Suggests

The bottom line: Brain games can't hurt, and probably help.

Are brain games the right call for you? While the scientific jury is still out on their definitive efficacy for mental fitness and longevity, playing them certainly can't hurt. To try them, look for games that provide a challenge and have research to back them, like BrainHQ, which Vernon and her colleagues used in their research.

Avena recommends figuring out what you want to accomplish and then searching for games that address your goals. Vernon recommends playing perhaps four to five times a week, for as long as 30 minutes a day; adding that consistency is more important than duration.

These games don't have to be the only activity in your brain fitness regimen. "If you pigeonhole your brain health activity into 10 minutes a day with these games, you're missing out on the other 23 hours and 50 minutes you could be working on your brain health," Vernon said.

Other activities—like regularly engaging in social interactions, fulfilling your purpose in life, getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and exercising—also improve mental fitness.

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  1. Sánchez-Izquierdo M, Fernández-Ballesteros R. Cognition in healthy agingInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(3):962. doi:10.3390/ijerph18030962

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