Scrabble. Sudoku. Crossword puzzles. Are games just a fun way to pass time or can they help you stay mentally sharp as you age – and even delay or prevent Alzheimer’s disease? We explore the latest research and best games for a fit brain, and give you tips to help keep your mind sharp. Plus, find out if you’re a right- or left-brained thinker…
Games are enjoyable, intellectually stimulating and socially engaging – and that’s all good for you. But do they keep your brain sharp?
If people repeatedly practice a certain task, they do improve over time, says Richard Caselli, M.D., professor of neurology at Mayo Clinic Arizona, in Scottsdale.
So chances are, if you do a crossword puzzle every day, you'll become an expert at them.
But researchers are still evaluating whether that skill can transfer to other tasks, like remembering a name, date, or where you left your keys. If so, fun brain games could be a component in helping manage degenerative brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
Specifically, scientists are testing “cognitive reserve,” the theory that a more active brain can compensate for the effects of Alzheimer’s disease – thus delaying onset of symptoms.
One 2010 study, conducted by Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, tracked 1,157 senior citizens for 12 years and found that those who stayed mentally active had a delayed onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms. Overall, they spent less time in a disabled state.
However, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reviewed all the research on Alzheimer’s prevention last spring and concluded that more long-term research is needed to determine whether games play a significant role.
Currently, “no evidence of even moderate scientific quality exists” that risk can be reduced by intellectual challenges, according to the NIH. The same goes for other factors they analyzed, such as diet, exercise, medications, medical conditions or social engagement.
Still, people who stay healthy overall tend to do better as they age. And intellectual engagement is an important part of overall health.
In fact, according the Alzheimer’s Association, the best way to maintain brain health is by:
* Staying physically active, which maintains good blood flow to the brain and encourages the development of brain cells.
* Sticking to a low-cholesterol, low-fat diet rich in fruits and dark green vegetables. Antioxidants in these foods may help protect brain cells.
* Staying socially active, which reduces stress.
* Staying mentally active, which may help strengthen connections between brain cells.
“There’s no downside. [These are] important choices we should make,” agrees Cynthia R. Green, Ph.D., author of Brainpower Game Plan: Food, Moves, and Games to Clear Brain Fog, Boost Memory, and Age-Proof Your Mind in 4 Weeks (Rodale).
Green advises adding some games and puzzles to your weekly routine. Only play games you enjoy, and don’t feel obligated to play every day. A few minutes several days a week could help, she says.
If nothing else, you’ll have fun, which also delivers valuable mind-body benefits.
“People who remain intellectually active are happier and less likely to be depressed” – and thus likely to stay healthier overall, Caselli says.
Here are some games to try:
Brain Game: Sudoku
How to play: This number-placement puzzle features a 9x9 grid comprising nine 3x3 sub-grids. The grid comes with some pre-filled numbers. You fill in the rest so that each sub-grid contains the digits 1-9, without repeating a number in the same row, column or 3x3 sub-grid.
Where to find it: In daily papers, including the New York Times, and in books in the puzzle section of any bookstore. Available as an electronic handheld game at Amazon in prices ranging from $19.99-$44.31. Free games are online at the New York Times website. It’s also available as an iPhone or BlackBerry application.
Brain Game: Boggle
How to play: Shake a tray of letter-imprinted dice and let them settle into a 4x4 grid. Start the three-minute timer, then each player has to find as many words as possible. You receive points for each word you find that isn’t duplicated by another player.
Where to find it: The board game, for 2-4 players, sells for $39.94 on Amazon. It’s available as an iPod Touch, iPhone, or iPad application. You can also play it as part of Hasbro Family Game Night on your Nintendo Wii, XBOX Live, XBOX 360 or Nintendo DS. Play free online at Fun-with-words.com.
Brain Game: Bananagrams
How to play: Each player draws 21 lettered tiles. They then race against each other to form sets of connecting and intersecting words. The first player to use all their tiles shouts “Bananas!” and wins the hand.
Where to find it: The game, for 2 or more players, sells for $14.99 on Amazon. You can also play online on Facebook. Books of Bananagrams puzzles, published by Workman Publishing, sell for $8.95.
Brain Game: Set
How to play: Using 9 cards, each player has to locate a “set” of 3 features (color, number, shape or shading) that's either all the same on each card or different.
Where to find it: It’s available on Amazon as a card game for $14.99 and as a handheld game for $39.99. Four free daily puzzles are offered at the New York Times website.
Brain Game: Simon
How to play: This electronic disc has 4 colored buttons, each of which plays a different tone when pressed. The game plays you a random sequence, which you then have to reproduce by quickly pressing the buttons in the correct order.
Where to find it: The electronic handheld game is available in stores for $9.99.
Brain Game: Lumosity Brain Games
How to play: At this website, you’ll find a variety of games to test different skills: verbal fluency, problem-solving, attention, speed and memory. Directions for each game are explained on the website.
Where to find it: Free games are available on the New York Times website; registration may be required.
Brain Game: KENKEN
How to play: Place numbers in a grid so they aren’t repeated in any row or column. Boxes in the grid are highlighted, with a cue as to what the result should be when the numbers are plugged into a mathematical equation.
For example, 2X means that the numbers, when multiplied, must produce an answer of 2. You can make it harder by trying to complete the puzzle in a set amount of time.
Where to find it: In daily papers, including the New York Times, and in books in the puzzle section of any bookstore. Available as an electronic handheld game at Amazon for $19.99. Find free games online at KENKEN and the New York Times website. It’s also available as an iPhone or BlackBerry application.
Brain Game: Crossword puzzles
How to play: Make these word puzzles harder by trying to complete them in a set amount of time. Other options: Find a friend to play with, or make copies of a puzzle and compete with friends to see who finishes first.
Where to find it: In addition to your daily newspaper and puzzle collections in any bookstore, you can find links to free online puzzles at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament website.
Brain Game: Jigsaw puzzles
How to play: Make these puzzles a social activity by working with family or friends to fit the pieces together.
Where to find it: For ideas of unique puzzles and where to buy them, visit the American Jigsaw Puzzle Society website. Games are also available online at ThirdAge.
Brain Game: Scrabble
How to play: In the classic game, you choose 8 tiles and take turns creating intersecting words on a board. But there are also new variations to try: The Scrabble Flash Game automatically times your turns. Upwords is a three-dimensional version of the game. Scrabble Nab-It allows you to steal words from your opponents.
Where to find it: You can find a list of retailers on the Hasbro website. Upwords retails for $15.99, Scrabble Flash for $29.99, and Nab-It for $19.99. Classic versions of Scrabble start at $9.99. You can also play on Facebook.
Brain Game: Tetris
How to play: Manipulate a series of tumbling shapes, so when they fall into place, they fit together and the completed lines disappear from the board. Dr. Green recommends keeping a timed game handy, on a phone or other device, so you can play easily for short periods of time.
Where to find it: Tetris is available for almost every phone, computer and game system. A complete list of products is available on the Tetris website.
Brain Game: Rubik’s Slide
How to play: This new, electronic variation of the ’80s favorite Rubik’s Cube has 9 lit-up squares on one panel. The object is to rearrange the pattern of lights by shifting and twisting the game until the pattern matches that puzzle’s solution. The game contains more than 10,000 puzzles and a variety of difficulty settings.
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