Mind Games: Brain Boosters for Older Adults



By Tricia Despres

Bill Darling has always been up for a challenge.

A former public relations executive with ComEd, the 78-year-old from the Northwest Side of Chicago has a higher-than-average IQ and an even higher hope that he will be able to continue working for years to come in his current real estate career. But to do that, Darling is smart enough to know that he must continue to keep his brain sharp as he gets older.

So, he plays games.

“I have three or four games on my iPhone,” Darling says. “My favorites right now are Monkey Wrench, 7 Little Words, Red Herring, and Wordscapes. Not only are they enjoyable and a bit of a time passer, but these games allow me to learn so many new words. If I come across one I don’t know, I just look it up.”

Experts agree. Stretching your brain as you age is crucial for older adults. In fact, a study published in 2003 in The New England Journal of Medicine titled “Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly” showed early support for the idea that keeping the mind healthy via a mix of physical and mental activities can greatly reduce your chances of being diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. A more recent study in the November 2016 issue of the journal International Psychogeriatrics also supports cognitively stimulating activities as a way to reduce dementia risk.

“I read a quote once outside the Chicago Children’s Museum that said, ‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing,’” says Adnan Arif, MD, a psychiatrist with the Institute for Personal Development, part of DuPage Medical Group. “We always have to nourish our inner child, no matter the game or activity.”

Luckily, there are many ways in which to do exactly that. But make no mistake: regular physical exercise remains the most important way to keep up a healthy brain.

“If you want to focus on keeping the brain healthy, you have to focus on the body as a whole and staying mentally stimulated,” says Arif, who encourages his patients to stay active and walk, dance, or even sing every single day. “You have to keep moving, because as we age, we get sluggish and sedentary. We absorb less protein and lose muscle mass.” Muscles contain mitochondria and ATP — the body’s fuel cells — which help to restore body functions and repair, keeping the body young.

A sluggish brain won’t do anyone any good.

“Neuro connections become far less efficient as one gets older,” says Beverly Sanborn, vice president of program development at Belmont Village Senior Living. “Our speed of recall and our speed of processing slows down. Therefore, it’s so important to build cognitive reserve. But in order to build this reserve, you must exercise your brain beyond your normal routine. You absolutely must do something that is new to your brain each and every day.”

There are multiple ways to give your brain a workout, some of which don’t even require you to get up off your comfy chair. Check out the following mental games that are not only beneficial for the brain’s well-being but are also a load of fun.

  • Visual planning games. Chess sets have been selling out since the pandemic began — and with good brain benefits. Any games that are visual and utilize a sense of planning can help one’s brain stay fresh. Other examples of planning games include Connect 4, checkers, and a good ol’ game of cards.
  • Word games. In an effort to learn something new every day, look no further than a book. You can not only build brain connectivity, but also build your vocabulary by searching for words you don’t know. Once you find one, look up the definition of the word and then commit to using it multiple times in the course of a day. While you’re at it, commit to avoiding overused cliches in everyday discussion. Find new ways to say the same thing differently.

    “People tend to have lazy brains,” says Sanborn, who holds a master’s in social work with a specialty in gerontology and dementia care. “We collectively don’t use creative speech as much as we should.”

  • Board games. Chances are, many of us have been playing board games since we were little. Therefore, it’s comforting to know that these games can continue to stimulate our brains throughout our entire life. Make sure to check out challenging board games such as Ticket to Ride and Pandemic, along with the game Call to Mind, a game specifically designed to encourage those dealing with dementia to open up about their individual likes and dislikes.
  • Socialization games. Thanks to advances in technology, it’s now possible to play games with one another no matter how many miles separate us. This has certainly helped many as the pandemic rages on.

    “The more social the game, the better,” Arif says. He suggests online games such as Words with Friends, which is similar to Scrabble.“Isolation is depression’s best friend. When we are isolated, we don’t have the mental stimulus we need. Our brain gets dull, and things begin to decay.”

The best news? No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to bring games back into one’s life. And even better is the fact that you can play these games with the people you love, no matter the distance.