Health and Wellness

Are brain games helpful?

A cognitive rehabilitation specialist explains ways to get the most out of typical brain games

Brain games are quizzes and activities designed to challenge the brain to exercise memory, attention, etc. In addition to crosswords and Sudoku, many brain-training programs are available online.

Are these puzzles helpful and should we be playing them? That’s the #1 question fielded by Heather Palmer, National Director of Cognitive Well-Being for Amica Senior Lifestyles, a specialist in cognitive enhancement who is developing and implementing memory care programs in Amica residences. First, let’s remind ourselves how the brain works.

Image for Conversations Brain Games Helpful at Amica senior living residence. 

Brain Basics

Neural pathways in the brain connect different regions allowing them to communicate with one another. Palmer likens them to superhighways that send information back and forth enabling us to carry out a variety of tasks and thoughts. The smoother and stronger the pathways, the better our brains tend to function. Yet just as roads develop cracks and potholes, our connections begin to break down as we age which might cause us to forget words, lose our train of thought, etc.

Fortunately, the brain has the capacity to reorganize and rebuild itself while also forming new neural connections. This is called neuroplasticity. Every time we engage in activities that stimulate brain connections, we help these pathways function more efficiently, similar to putting down another layer of pavement on a highway to fill in cracks and potholes.

So what are brain games good for?

Instead of nurturing neural pathways and connections, brain-training programs are believed to focus more on stimulating individual components or regions of the brain. That means that completing crosswords, Sudoku puzzles or computer games will make you better at playing these games and help certain brain regions, but won’t necessarily address the cognitive difficulties that may have prompted you to start these activities in the first place.

How to make brain games better

The trick is linking games to our day-to-day lives. “By linking them back to life, that’s where we’re truly exercising and strengthening those pathways,” says Palmer. When you’re finished a game, think about how you can use it to improve the memory lapses or concentration problems you face day to day. For example, if you have trouble remembering to take medication but no problem remembering to do the daily crossword, you might store your pill bottle next to your favourite pencil or pen as a reminder. (For another cognitive tool, try self talk.)

What's the best brain game?

“When people ask what’s better, Sudoku or crosswords or online games, I say social interaction is one of the best exercises for your brain,” says Palmer.

When we listen, hear information, pull it in, dig up a response based on our stored facts, hold that in mind while someone else interjects, then reorganize thoughts to account for new info—that uses multiple regions of the brain, helping us to strengthen the pathways.

Dr. Heather Palmer is a cognitive aging and dementia specialist with more than 30 years of clinical and scientific experience. She focuses on helping individuals improve the way they think, feel and function. Heather is the National Director of Cognitive Well-Being for Amica Senior Lifestyles. She is developing cognitive well-being programs for Amica with a heightened focus on Memory Care and Assisted Living.

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