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Mental benefits of puzzles and brain games for older people

Brain games and puzzles provide an older person the opportunity to use their critical thinking and problem-solving skills

Last updated: October 7th 2022
Dementia advocacy groups advocate for cognitive stimulation among older people as a preventative measure to dementia development. [Source: iStock]

Dementia advocacy groups advocate for cognitive stimulation among older people as a preventative measure to dementia development. [Source: iStock]

Key points:

  • Keeping your brain mentally active is really beneficial in the long run for reducing the risk of developing different types of dementia

  • Research has found brain teasers and puzzles can encourage brain stimulation in the elderly

  • Brain games and puzzles provide an older person the opportunity to use their critical thinking and problem-solving skills

The activity can fill your day, give you a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment, and hone your mental skills.

And in the long term, it is a fantastic way to keep your brain engaged and functioning at its highest capacity.

While it is a common stereotype that older people like to spend their time figuring out a crossword or putting together a puzzle of a lovely green landscape, did you know daily puzzles and games are backed by science?

Research and puzzles

It has long been a standpoint of dementia advocacy groups that cognitive challenges and stimulation is an important preventative measure to the development of types of dementia or the acceleration of dementia.

Dementia Australia advocates for healthy brain activity through puzzles, brain games, and other mentally stimulating activities, as research has shown that active brains build up reserves of healthy brain cells.

The organisation also state that research has shown that exercising your brain through mental stimulation may reduce the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Studies over the years have backed this standpoint, with many different researchers finding that puzzles can stimulate the brain and keep older people sharp while also delaying the onset of memory loss.

A UK researcher did two studies into the positive effects of word puzzles – released in November 2018 – and number puzzles – released in February 2019 – on older people.

Older people that frequently undertook puzzles had better short-term memory capabilities and the verbal reasoning of someone much younger. For example, older people who regularly did word puzzles had the brain function of someone ten years younger compared to their actual age.

The word puzzle study concluded that there was a close relationship between the frequency of puzzle use by people aged 50 and over and the quality of their cognitive function.

Another study from 2017 found that jigsaw puzzles had a positive effect on visuospatial functioning in older adults. Visuospatial functioning is integral to a person’s ability to process, identify, detail, and analyze a space and visual form. It is also essential to a person’s movement, and depth and distance perception.

Benefits of puzzles and brain games

There are a range of positive benefits that you will have by consistently participating in puzzles and brain games. Such as:

  • Improved short-term memory

  • Assist with concentration and focus

  • Reduced stress

  • Improved quality of sleep

  • Encourages decision-making and improved processing speed

  • Develop your problem-solving skills

  • Can sharpen your reasoning skills and attention to detail

  • Keeps your fingers nimble, especially if you need to use a pen or move puzzle pieces around

  • Enhance your mood

Having healthy cognitive stimulation is vital to a healthy brain and its mental connections. Doing any brain activity games, puzzles, or hobbies can consistently encourage a healthy mind, while also keeping you entertained and enjoying yourself.

Highly regarded puzzles for seniors

  • Sudoku
    The game is a grid of nine by nine spaces with each row and column having nine squares. Each space needs to be filled with a number from one to nine, however, you cannot repeat a number within the same row, column and square.
    Sudoku can be confusing to many, but it is a fabulous brain game that exercises your deductive skills and problem-solving capabilities. It is considered a challenging puzzle for many.

  • Crosswords
    A word puzzle that has a grid and you need to fill in the blank spaces. There are squares with some having numbers, and the numbers have co-related clues that you need to figure out the word for, which you can then place into its spot. All squares overlap, so you need to get correct answers for all clues for everything to fit properly.
    Crosswords require problem-solving skills, brainstorming, and the use of critical thinking to come up with answers. It can be a very stimulating puzzle for the mind.
    Research from 2011 found that people with dementia who participated in crossword puzzles actually delayed the onset of accelerated memory decline by 2.54 years compared to people with dementia who didn’t utilise word puzzles.

  • Jigsaw puzzles
    A jigsaw puzzle is a picture that has been printed onto cardboard and then cut into pieces. You have to put all the pieces together again to make the full picture.
    Puzzles are a great way to exercise both sides of your brain, the analytical side of your brain and the creative side of your brain. Choosing puzzles with smaller pieces is ideal since it is more difficult to finish and it encourages fine motor skills. Some people utilise jigsaw puzzles as a stress reliever or tool for meditation as well.

  • Word searches
    A word search is a grid of randomised letters and within this maze of letters, you have to find words, which may be provided as is or through clues.
    Word searches encourage attention to detail and visual and spatial perception when looking for words within the grid.

  • Chess
    Chess is a game that requires two people to play. Each player has 16 pieces on the board that move in specific directions and have different functions. The aim of the game is to place the ‘king’ piece into ‘checkmate’, which wins the game.

    A game of strategy and problem-solving, chess is considered a great mental workout for the elderly. It encourages planning ahead, strategising your next move, and counteracting unexpected changes in play. Chess can be quite a social game, encouraging interaction with the other participant as well as connecting like-minded individuals.

Other popular board games like Monopoly, Catan, or Cluedo, are also a great way to stimulate brain function.

To make board games more enjoyable for yourself, invite the family over for a games night to try a new board game.

Additionally, there are many brain training apps available on phones and tablets which assist in stimulating your brain and even sharpening your own mental abilities.

What brain game or puzzle do you enjoy in your spare time? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Finding purpose in your retirement
What is dementia?
Preparing yourself for retirement


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