Visit the app store on your phone or computer and you’ll undoubtedly see a variety of “brain games.” These apps include tests and exercises, claiming to boost your memory and thinking skills and to help you process information more swiftly.

The attractively packaged games are well-marketed. Nearly two out of three people ages 50 and older believe that playing online brain games can help maintain or improve brain health, according to an AARP survey. Articles and news programs also tout the benefits of old-school games, such as crossword puzzles.

But can brain games help prevent or delay memory loss? No answer is a clear winner.

The ACTIVE Study

Advocates point to the ACTIVE study, funded by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute on Nursing Research. Nearly 2,800 adults ages 65 to 70 underwent 10 training sessions for at least five weeks. The older adults enrolled in this study were rated as cognitively normal or at most very mildly impaired.

The participants showed improvement, but there were some unexpected findings. Memory training wasn’t as helpful as “speed of processing” training that helped people think more quickly. Even after 10 years, the people who had brief training in processing speed continued to benefit.

Beyond the ACTIVE Study

We’ve learned from the ACTIVE study and others that specific skills may not carry over. For instance, completing a word search puzzle may not help someone keep track of their keys more effectively or remember a new acquaintance’s name more easily.

There is also the issue of “opportunity cost.” Time spent on brain games may be time taken away from an outing with the grandchildren, a visit to the gym, or a meaningful conversation with one’s spouse.

The Bottom Line

Playing brain games or crossword puzzles can be fun, and may even be beneficial.

Cognitive activities are important for keeping the brain active and quick, and they are an important part of a brain-healthy lifestyle.

Yet it’s even more important to make them part of a health-promoting lifestyle that also includes physical activity, a healthy diet, social engagement, active management of medical issues, and restorative sleep.

All these are ingredients of a lifestyle that appears to preserve cognitive as well as general good health.

Author James M. Ellison, M.D., MPH, is The Swank Foundation Endowed Chair in Memory Care and Geriatrics.

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