If you do it right, puzzles and games might just save your brain.
There are millions of players of strategy games, memory games, word games and puzzles. They want to know that working crosswords, solving sudoku, playing bridge, mahjong or chess will help preserve mental acuity. Some are counting on it.
Cognitive reserve is the term developed after researchers found instances of examination of the brains of individuals that showed signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, but, while alive, the individual had exhibited no signs of dementia. We want to build cognitive reserve, and there is evidence that puzzles can do that. One key-and positive- study from 2011 found that solving crossword puzzles delayed onset of memory loss by 2.5 years, and may have had much longer beneficial impact.
The National Institute of Health and the National Institute of Nursing Research funded a study on brain-training and cognition. That study is indirectly related to our question of games, puzzles and brain health. In that study, 2,800 volunteers underwent different kinds of brain training. One group did memory training like recalling words from a list. Another did reasoning work, such as identifying patterns, finding the next item in a series and so on. The third did speed-of-processing drills, such as identifying objects on a computer screen shown for increasingly shorter periods. The study followed up on participants’ capabilities at regular intervals. At ten years, those who had been in the reasoning group or the speed of processing group still outperformed a control group.
Since the participants weren’t actually playing games or solving puzzles, I won’t argue that it is direct proof. But training on reasoning and pattern-spotting is akin to many games and puzzles. Here’s how it would work on the brain: solving puzzles or winning a game causes the brain to produce dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter-that is, it transmits signals between neurons. Dopamine pathways play a role in reward behavior, and dopamine is associated with cognition, movement, pleasure and attention. Increases in dopamine may help motivate us to move, achieve goals and find work rewarding. Therefore, producing more dopamine would, in turn, cause us to do more (healthy) things.
And We Know Loneliness Is a Killer
In previous posts, I’ve covered some of the research on the physical damage that loneliness and isolation does to the brain, and the importance of involvement with friends and family to brain health.
Traditional strategy games like chess, checkers, and go require two players. And there are thousands of games from the ancient such as dominoes and mahjong to classics like Life, Monopoly and charades. Further, there are new ones created every year. Most of those games require four or more players. Playing strategy games like chess and Six Making, which we offer, require planning and reasoning. So do card games like bridge and poker. Games like Mahjong can be played just for fun, or very seriously. The result of playing those games is more (healthy again) social interaction.
If playing a game is the principal reason someone makes regular connections with friends, then games are indeed beneficial to brain health. And if the fun part is combined with serious concentration six moves ahead in Go, or remembering if the ten of hearts has been played, the evidence leans to being good for building that bigger brain.