How brain training can keep you mentally active for longer

Staying physically and mentally active as you get older is very important – experts explain how brain training could help you stay sharp.

We all know that keeping fit is important for your body and general wellbeing as you get older, but staying mentally active can also be enormously beneficial for your brain health.

You might already be participating in activities that help to fire up your grey matter – particularly if you enjoy completing newspaper crosswords or shouting out the answers to TV quizzes. You might even be part of Saga Exceptional’s growing puzzles enthusiasts community.

“Brain stimulation, novelty and diversity of stimuli are important for an ageing brain,” explains Professor Hana Burianová, a cognitive neuroscientist at Bournemouth University and an adviser to Healthspan.

Image of a man's hand filling in a crossword with the words 'brain' and 'train'Credit: Shutterstock/Jne Valokuvaus

What is brain training?

Brain training is a type of activity that can help to exercise and strengthen your cognitive abilities by requiring you to use skills such as memory, reasoning and attention. It can also help to sharpen your thinking as you work quickly to find the solution to a tricky crossword or puzzle.

Examples of brain training exercises include:

  • Crosswords
  • Sudoku
  • Puzzles, such as jigsaws and word searches
  • Other words and number games
  • Learning something new, whether that’s the lyrics to a song you like or how to say hello in different languages
  • Learning to play a musical instrument.

“These types of activity all require concentration and memory,” says Professor Burianová. “Thus, they are excellent tools in keeping your cognition engaged and your brain networks strongly interconnected.”

It’s a good idea to go for a broad range of mental stimuli, according to Professor Victor Henderson, an expert in epidemiology, population health and neurology at Stanford Health Care.

He feels there’s not enough evidence to support doing only one type of brain training exercise, so varying how you keep mentally active is the best approach.

“I like doing crossword puzzles, but I don’t know if that’s going to make me smarter 10 years from now,” he says. “If you accept the general principle that being mentally active is good for the brain, then I wouldn’t think there’s strong evidence that one form of brain training activity is really better than another.”


What are the benefits of brain training games?

Research has shown that regularly participating in brain training activities has potential benefits. As we get older, online brain training games and puzzles could be especially helpful. Here’s how:

They may lower your dementia risk

According to a recent study, exercising your brain through activities such as learning online and regularly doing crosswords and puzzles could help to prevent dementia.

The study of 10,318 older people in Australia found that regularly engaging in mentally stimulating activities – such as learning, using a computer and taking part in brain-engaging activities like games and puzzles – provided cognitive benefits including lowering the risk of dementia.

For older adults, lifestyle enrichment may be particularly important because it could help prevent dementia through modifications to daily routines, the researchers noted.

Word and number games could enhance your problem-solving skills

Doing word and number games could help your brain stay agile. Previous research of more than 19,000 older adults found that brain training games of this type could strengthen problem solving skills.

Those who engaged in crosswords and sudoku, for example, were better able to respond well to tests that assessed their thinking and recall capabilities, researchers at University of Exeter and King’s College London found.


“The more regularly people engaged with word and number puzzles, the sharper their performance was across a range of tasks assessing their memory, attention and reasoning,” explains Professor Anne Corbett, associate professor in dementia research at University of Exeter Medical School, who led the 2019 study.

“The improvements were quite clear in the speed and accuracy of their performance. But in some areas, the improvement was quite dramatic. For example, on measures of problem solving, those who regularly engaged with word and number puzzles performed equivalent to an average of eight years younger.”

Builds cognitive resilience

A major benefit of keeping mentally active through brain training activities such as games, puzzles, and quizzes is that this can help to build what’s known as cognitive resilience (your brain’s ability to cope with the negative effects of stress).

“When you are getting dementia, there are protons in your brain that disrupt and destroy your brain cells,” says Dr Susan Mitchell, head of policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “And the more damage we see, the greater the symptoms and the damage that forms in certain parts of your brain. For example, it often happens in the hippocampus region, which is responsible for memory.

“By building up cognitive resilience, this will enable your brain to cope a little more with the stresses of a certain amount of brain cell damage. The more cognitive resilience you have, the better – and that’s where keeping your brain sharp as you get older seems to help. It’s not a failsafe against developing dementia, but it helps.”

Do puzzles help with memory?

Emerging evidence certainly suggests doing puzzles can be beneficial for your memory. For example, a new study has found that taking part in online brain training puzzles including sudoku, Wordle, jigsaws and crosswords could help to boost your brain health and improve your memory.

A team of researchers from the University of York found people aged 60 and over who took part in digital puzzles performed as well as younger adults in tests of their memory. The study suggests taking part in online brain training games and puzzles could be particularly beneficial for enhancing memory in older adults.

Researchers believe the memory-boosting outcome in older people is due to their ability to focus on the task in hand and ignore all distractions.

“Puzzle games for older people had this surprising ability to support mental capabilities to the extent that memory and concentration levels were the same as a 20-year-old,” explained Dr Joe Cutting, from the research team.

How often should I do brain training activities?

You don’t necessarily need to do something daily to engage your brain to reap the benefits. A comprehensive study has found that doing just two brain training activities a week can also make a difference.

This 10-year study of people over 60 in China identified the healthy lifestyle behaviours that can help to protect against dementia. In addition to eating well, keeping active and maintaining social connections, they also found participating in cognitive activities twice per week was beneficial.

Three ways you can challenge your brain

The good news is there isn’t just one way that’s recommended to help with staying cognitively sharp – varying the activities you do is best.

“We know keeping your brain stimulated is key,” says Dr Mitchell. “But there isn’t a clear suggestion of what that involves, so opting for a rich and varied diet for your brain is ideal. Varying the brain training activities you do will help to exercise different parts of it, and the more you can use that range, the better.”

Increase the difficulty of your favourite puzzles

If puzzles are your thing, Professor Burianová advises upping the difficulty to get continued benefits from this type of brain training workout.

“Introduce more challenge into the activities you enjoy,” she says. “If you are really good at crosswords or sudoku, for example, try increasing the degree of difficulty, and avoid using help such as a crossword dictionary (or a spellchecker or calculator).”

Shake up your routine

She also advises learning something new and shaking up your routine from time to time.

“Provide your brain with novelty to challenge the autopilot by learning and doing new things as often as possible. For example, take another route home, tie your shoelaces with your eyes closed, cook without a recipe, do a grocery shop without a list, or buy an unknown ingredient and cook a meal with it.”

She explains that incorporating various different activities over a week or month is better for your brain than doing the same cognitive activity every day as it can learn to do these automatically over time.

Go outdoors to stimulate your brain

Staying physically active is great for your physical and mental health. But don’t follow the same routine every time you head outdoors.

Try to choose routes that engage your attention and are diverse, such as a nature walk where you might spot different species of flowers and wildlife. “This will have a more beneficial impact on your brain and its plasticity,” explains Professor Burianová.

Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her


Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time.

She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante,, Primary Health Care, Community Practitioner, CareKnowledge and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

Away from work, Julie is a huge Sunderland fan, loves watching football, athletics and swimming (live whenever possible!) and is a long-term vegetarian. She also loves to run, swim and practise yoga.

Previously, she loved to race too but since 2018, this has been firmly put on the backburner due to her having back-to-back sports injuries, both of which required subsequent surgery. Julie was gearing up to a return to racing after five years, but a further injury has hampered her imminent plans. Instead, recovering well is top of her list at the moment.

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