There is quite a bit of controversy over the notion of building a stronger brain via brain exercises (such as crossword puzzles and online brain training games). This month’s tips will shed some clarity on this topic.
A history of regular mental challenges (ie college education and employment) and continued mental engagement (ie volunteering, social activities, part time jobs, ect) all significantly reduce the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. These all help to build up “Cognitive Reserve.” Cognitive Reserve is the accumulation of connections in the brain that allows the mind to resist damage to the brain.
The brain, just like all other tissues in the body will experience some degree of degeneration as we age. Previously, it was thought that a brain with significant degeneration will have some degree of dementia. Eventually, scientists began to notice, that some people who had severely degenerated brains were as sharp as a whistle up until the day they died. These people whose brains were degenerated, yet were still functioning very well, all had one thing in common, an extensive history of regular cognitive engagement.
Large scale research1 and consensus amongst multiple organizations/specialists in the field of dementia all agree that regular cognitive engagement is a good thing for the brain. What is not agreed upon is if any individual brain exercises convey greater benefits than another. The short answer to this question is “no.” There are not any particular brain exercises (such as playing Bridge) that are inherently superior to other forms of mental exercise. However, it does appear that engaging in novel mental exercises activates much more of the brain than doing activities we’ve done plenty of times before. This doesn’t mean you should stop doing the things you enjoy, just to remember that your opportunity to create more connections in your brain lies in doing something new.
As always, first and foremost, remember to consider what the greatest opportunity is for the enhancement of your brain. Eating a better diet, exercising more, or sleeping more may offer greater benefits to your brain than a new mental exercise. Figure out what’s best for your brain and make it happen!
Adams et al. Occupational activity and cognitive reserve: implications in terms of prevention of cognitive aging and Alzheimer's disease. Clin Interv Aging. 2013;8:377-90. doi: 10.2147/CIA.S39921. Epub 2013 April 11.