Can ‘brain training’ keep your mind healthy?

Head of Dementia and Professional Standards at Bupa UK
04 February 2019

You may have heard the saying 'use it or lose it' when it comes to keeping your mind sharp. The idea is that by keeping mentally active and engaged, you’ll keep your brain in good working order. That could mean doing things like reading, learning new skills, or just actively concentrating on everyday tasks.

There’s certainly some truth in the phrase. Keeping your mind stimulated and challenged can improve how well you think, remember and reason. It may also help you to cope better with changes to your brain as you age.

But what about ‘brain training’ exercises and games you often hear about? Do these have any particular benefits – and can they really help to prevent dementia or mental decline, as some people claim?

What is brain training?

The phrase ‘brain training’ describes a range of activities that are designed to challenge you mentally. These can include more traditional puzzles, such as Sudoku and crosswords, as well as computer games and apps that test you to think quickly and come up with solutions.

How well does brain training work?

One recent study found that people who did mentally stimulating activities throughout life – particularly brain training-style problem solving – had sharper minds in old age. This didn’t mean they were protected against mental decline, but it did give them a ‘higher starting point’ to decline from.

Another study looked at whether computer-based brain training could help people who already have slight problems with memory or thinking. This is known as mild cognitive impairment and it can lead on to dementia. The study found the training helped people in this group to improve their thinking, memory and mood. But it didn’t look at whether this made a difference to them ultimately getting dementia or not.

There’s no evidence at the moment that brain training can actually prevent dementia. It’s also not clear whether brain training is particularly helpful for people who already have dementia, in the same way that it seems to be for people with mild cognitive impairment.

A 2017 report from the Global Council on Brain Health argued that, ‘the evidence today regarding the benefits of what most people consider “brain games” is weak to non-existent. Games can be fun and engaging. But often, the claims made by companies promoting the benefits of these games are exaggerated.’ The experts behind the report suggested that people concentrate on ‘activities that people do for work and/or leisure-time which evidence has, in fact, shown to be good for brain health.’

If you enjoy brain training games or activities, there’s definitely no harm in doing them. Importantly, you might simply find them fun and fulfilling! Just don’t expect too much from what they can achieve for your health in the long-run – as I’ve hopefully shown, the research at this stage isn’t completely clear about that.

Ways to keep mentally active

Woman's hands knitting

There are lots of activities to keep yourself mentally stimulated and challenged, which can benefit your mental health and your brain. Here are some great examples:

  • take photography classes
  • design a quilt
  • learn to juggle
  • cooking
  • gardening
  • learn a musical instrument
  • learn new technologies
  • creative writing
  • make art
  • volunteer in the community
  • learn a different language

A lot of these can be sociable, as well as mentally challenging – a combination that’s been found to be particularly good for brain health.

We have a hub of dementia information that you may find useful if you want to learn more about the condition. It includes helpful details about what dementia is, how to reduce your risk of dementia, how to care for a loved one with dementia and more.

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, you’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Aileen Waton
Head of Dementia and Professional Standards at Bupa UK

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