There is in the meantime plenty of research evidence showing the benefits of physical exercise and activity. In fact, the latter probably is stating the obvious given how mainstream and socially acceptable physical exercise has become in society. The benefits of regular physical activity on physical health (e.g., improved circulatory health, weight control) have been widely shown and accepted. However, important to this post, newer evidence has shown that regular physical exercise is also beneficial to brain health, especially cognitive health (i.e., thinking ability).
Currently, there are concerns at all levels of society (e.g., individual people as well as organizations and governmental agencies) about the risk of developing dementia as people get older. As a result, cognitive exercises- that is exercises that train the ability to pay attention, remember information, and continue to be able to reason logically, solve problems effectively, make good decisions, and think clearly- have flooded the market, especially the online market as online cognitive exercises or phone apps. Examples of online companies providing such exercises include Lumosity, Brain HQ, Happy Neuron, and CogniFit. Other types of cognitive activities include paper/ pencil exercises such as sudokus and code crosswords, which can be downloaded for printing from sites such as www.krazydad.com and https://gamesmagazine-online.com/september-2016-code-crosswords/ , respectively.
As is normal with new knowledge, it can be challenging to set apart those cognitive exercises that are truly helpful in supporting brain and cognitive health from those that just keep people “busy” without true benefit beyond spending your time doing something.
As a result, much research has been done into the effect of online (computerized) cognitive exercises and the jury certainly has been divided. Keep in mind, research is not a straightforward process, and not finding positive results of the benefit of computerized cognitive exercises may mean many things. For example, the investigated exercises may not provide the expected benefit, or the study may have been flawed by measurement issues, the time frame of the study may have been too short to show any effect, or the exercises may not have been properly paired with the measured cognitive ability (e.g., if the exercise trains reasoning, but the researcher measures memory, then no effect would be seen despite a potential improvement in reasoning). Such issues were part of the difficulties that researchers have faced throughout the decades- the consequence is that earlier research results often don’t tell the story correctly. It takes much of the same/ similar research and learning on the researchers’ part before we understand the story behind an investigated issue.
When it comes to preventing dementia and supporting brain and cognitive health, evidence is being gathered that cognitive online exercises can provide a positive effect on cognitive health. This is not surprising given that the brain is ‘neuroplastic’- it changes in response to external and internal demands. In short, while cognitive exercises are not the only puzzle piece in the brain and cognitive health, it is an important one as well. For example, the University of British Columbia has done a study looking at the effects of computerized cognitive exercises alone versus the use of cognitive exercises in combination with physical exercise versus sham activity. The cognitive exercises alone improved cognition while cognitive exercises in combination with physical exercises increased this positive effect.
To date, we know of 5 areas that people can be aware of and engage in to support their own brain and cognitive health:
- Mental stimulation (to gain a brain health benefit from mental stimulation activities, the activity needs to be challenging for you – that is it must require effortful processing; and it’s important that you like the activities you do for mental stimulation!)- see below for some options:
- Brain games/ cognitive exercises
- a) games that require player to reason, remember information, and/ or develop strategies (puzzles, scrabble, chess, labyrinth, jenga, codebreaker, monopoly),
- b) online games such as found for free at gamesforthebrain.com
- c) paper-pencil exercises: e.g., soduko on paper, crossword puzzles are not appropriate as brain exercise!!!, but code crossword puzzles are!),
- d) exercises to be done without any materials: e.g., counting backwards from any number like ‘523’ – count backwards by 2, 3s, 6s, or 7s; coming up with as many words in 1 minute as you can in a chosen category such as ‘grocery items’ or ‘furniture’
- Similarly to using cog exercises (like a-d above), the current notion is that learning a new activity or new information will provide the same benefit:
- a new language, a new dance, learning to play an instrument, or knitting; taking a class on a topic that you like- these are all suggested activities that will place demands on the brain and thereby stimulate the brain- the possibilities are endless)- as long as these activities are challenging you (not to difficult, and not too easy, but requiring effortful processing and concentration), these everyday activities will do the trick as well. In short, the key is that these everyday activities will be cognitively effortful and fun
- Brain games/ cognitive exercises
- Social stimulation (e.g., keeping up your social contacts and friendships; doing things or discussing topics with friends over coffee, dinner/ lunch)
- Physical exercises (e.g., walking, swimming, cycling, gym)
- Healthy diet (following the Canada Food Guide: https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/ and your own specific needs, e.g. diabetes)
- Stress reduction (e.g., relaxation, meditation; self-care activities; sufficient amount of daily rest/ sleep)
And keep in mind that these are guidelines. If you need to make changes in your life, take it one step at a time. Start with the easiest/ most interesting change, make it a habit, and then add on other changes in a step-wise fashion.
You can read more on the topic of cognitive aging here