Search “brain exercises for older adults” online, and you’ll find suggestions for everything from sudoku to chess. You’ll also find dedicated brain training programs or apps that promise to boost memory, attention, and more, with the goal to keep you mentally sharp no matter your age. They often claim to be backed by science. But does brain exercise or “brain training” actually work?
“As a scientist, it’s not a black-and-white, yes-or no-answer,” says Susanne Jaeggi, PhD, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine. “I’d say it depends. It can be useful as part of your general set of things you do as you get older, along with physical exercise, good diet, good sleep schedule, and in general keeping active, cognitively or mentally speaking. There’s a lot you can do to keep in shape, and brain exercise can be part of it.”
That said, many apps promise that if you do their exercises for even a few minutes a day, “it will prevent dementia,” she says. The reality is more subtle and complicated.
Weighing the Evidence
The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study is often cited in favor of brain training’s benefits for older people. The trial included more than 2,800 people, ages 65 and up. Researchers designed it to test whether different kinds of brain training could help people stay independent with age by improving their mental abilities.
Overall, the findings showed that several weeks of brain training worked. People generally got better at the skill their training targeted. So, those who trained to do visual searches quickly got faster at them. Those who worked on problem-solving usually improved in that area. Memory training led to some improvements, too, though less often.
A least some people got better at doing the kinds of mental tests they practiced doing in the study. But, before you run off to start training, wait a minute. The study didn’t find any evidence that those improvements on the tests helped people in their everyday lives. It’s possible that’s because people in the study didn’t have any cognitive impairment to start with.
To find out if training would help people later in life, researchers got the study’s participants back 10 years later, when they were 82 on average. And, there was some modestly good news. About 60% of people who’d done brain training in the study reported that they were doing just as well or better with daily life activities.
That’s compared to half of the people in the study’s control group, who didn’t do any special training. So, a decade later, the majority of people who’d done some brain training hadn’t noticed any decline. They were as a group perhaps doing a bit better on average than those who didn’t do the training. Still, the researchers reported that the benefits were modest at best, probably because so many other factors are at play.
Building Working Memory
“We do know brain training works for some people,” Jaeggi says. “But, we have limited understanding of the mechanism. What is it exactly about [certain] exercises that work well? Why do they work for some people and not others?”
Jaeggi is part of an online study enrolling 30,000 people to help find the answer. Her work focuses on brain training aimed at improving working memory. Working memory is what you need to keep information in mind for a short period of time while you’re doing other things. It’s important for lots of skills you need to get through the day and engage with other people, from following a conversation to doing mental math.
A brain exercise that’s best known and studied for tapping into working memory is the n-back task, says Benjamin Katz, PhD, an assistant professor of human development at Virginia Tech who studies cognitive training.
“You have to remember a series of blocks lit up on a screen and a series of letters,” he says. “You have to remember that series and indicate if a letter or block matched the one that came some number before it.”
While most exercises don’t transfer well to other tasks or daily life, there’s some evidence the n-back task does. One study showed it led to better fluid intelligence, the ability to reason and solve new problems. A later study showed that more training also translated into bigger gains.
“Oftentimes, there's near transfer,” Katz says. “You do better after doing programs on very similar tasks. That’s important, but there’s a lot less evidence that those tasks necessarily can directly improve things you care about every day, like remembering what you need to buy at the grocery store or remembering a person's name.”
Is There Any Harm?
The bottom line for Jaeggi: “There’s accumulating evidence that some games can be beneficial. I wouldn’t discourage from playing them. But, it's not a silver bullet -- ‘Play this and don't get dementia.’ That’s really not how this works.”
Katz says that rather than using brain training programs, it may be better to do things that generally keep you learning and engaged in your life. He suggests learning a musical instrument or foreign language or engaging in creative art activities.
“Those almost certainly are in many ways analogous to cognitive training,” he says. "They can be more fun and interesting, and there’s just as much evidence those might help.”
If you like board games or cards, play them, he says. Whatever activities you choose to stay mentally engaged, he also suggests that you keep challenging yourself and change it up often. Don’t just keep doing the same sudoku or crossword puzzles over and over. It’s also important to put the time in and keep it up.
“With physical exercise, if you stop, you don't expect to stay physically fit or keep your running time,” Katz says. When it comes to exercising your brain, the same rule applies.