The Thinking on Brain Games: One Way to Stay Brain Fit

Kali Sarver is a Senior at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio with a major in Psychology and a minor in Gerontology. She is a current undergraduate student intern at the Virtual Brain Health Center. This fall, Kali will attend the University of Michigan to earn her Ph.D. in Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience.


In recent years, brain games have turned into a multibillion-dollar industry. In 2018 alone, people spent 1.9 billion dollars on brain game apps, a four-fold increase from 2012. This figure is projected to rise with the growing trend of brain games and the popularity of health and fitness in 2020 (we are still waiting on current data).

But what, exactly, are brain games? Brain games are defined as tasks that get your brain actively engaged and stimulate thinking. Video games are classified into two categories: simple games and complex games. Non-action, or simple games, are more appropriate for aging adults and have documented benefits with memory-related tasks such as paper and pencil tasks, cards or board games.

With growing popularity, there has also been some controversy surrounding some companies known for their online or computer-based brain game products. It is important to note that the companies were fined for the marketing of their products, not the actual brain games the company developed. For a company to state that it can slow the progression of memory loss or reverse memory decline, it should have the research data behind it to prove its bold claims! At least this is what the courts have ruled to date and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulations are enforcing regarding the current state of the field on brain games. Stay tuned as this is still a work in progress in our legal system…

This blog intends to take a quick dive into the current research on brain games and provide a basic understanding of the field’s limitations. There are also some tips for ways to add brain games to your brain workout and encouragement to try something new. We hope this will be of benefit to you and your brain fitness quest. Collectively, brain gaming should be new, novel and challenging. This will vary from individual to individual, but brain games should not be expensive.

To begin, think about…

  • How much time do you spend online or on an electronic device?
  • Are brain games part of your current brain fitness routine? If so, which types of games?
  • What if playing brain games could improve your memory? What would you do?

This may sound too good to be true, but there is growing evidence that these types of exercises offer promising benefits to your brain. Recent research has suggested that playing games are challenges that are both fun and beneficial for all of our aging brains! Although there are mixed reviews from researchers about how well games truly work to improve your memory, many articles cite that your brain is a muscle and can be trained to perform better. Just like working out at the gym and building muscle to become physically stronger, playing brain games can enhance your cognitive fitness.

It is worth noting that not all games are equally beneficial to your brain health and all good things should be enjoyed in moderation. For example, playing the same game or apps like Candy Crush, Yahtzee, or Uno on your phone or iPad probably will not directly help you improve your memory (based on the current research), but it can balance your brain fitness routine by providing a relaxing exercise to help pass the time or enhance social connections with friends, family, or colleagues. However, there is some evidence that certain types of games can give your brain a boost- no one game will do it alone. There are many ways to learn new things and brain games open this door.

Certain types of games can give your brain a boost. There are many ways to learn new things and brain games open this door. Some of the brain benefits that have been recognized in research are:

  1. Decreasing the risk of dementia
  2. Sharpening one’s thinking skills
  3. Building one’s cognitive reserve, known as resilience to damage in the brain
  4. Keeping one’s brain active and engaged
  5. Improving real-time memory with spatial relationships and memory relating to your past experiences

What does all of this mean? Research suggests that certain types of games can improve our memory, both in real-time and our memories of past events. Brain games can also help us build up and enhance our brains so that we can think better and apply the skills learned via gaming in real-world scenarios.

Brain games do not have to be expensive. What are the types of games that you can play to help improve your memory? Listed below are games that have been shown to improve brain function. You can read more about these games at Harvard Health Publishing.

  1. Crosswords
  2. Chess
  3. Sudoku
  4. Scrabble

If you already play these types of games, we recommend that you try completing them while timing yourself and work against the clock. This can increase your speed of processing and is a great way to level up the challenge! Games of strategy or games that involve multiple steps to solve the solution help to keep the brain sharp.

One of the challenges to online brain games is the limit to accessing many games that are studied in research to be played in the real world. Many games are designed to be studied in a research lab and are not readily available for everyday use. Some games are being studied for their benefits in our daily lives and being incorporated into daily training for individuals; however, this is a growing area of research. Additionally, some of the games studied in the lab require hours of training, which can lead to brain fatigue and a loss of motivation from the aging adults in the studies. There is a balance to adding gaming to our daily routines.

Interested in online gaming? We recommend a few virtual games to help keep your brain engaged. The following are accessible and are research-informed in their design. The games we suggest can help stimulate your thinking include:

  1. BrainHQ: Create a free account and customize the area of brain training you would like to target.
  2. Games on the AARP website, like Mahjongg Dimensions, can increase your speed and memory
  3. Dakim Brain Fitness offers free trials of games to keep your brain sharp!
  4. Brain Yoga- A free app that can be downloaded onto your smartphone or iPad with 11 puzzle games (visuospatial, memory, vocabulary, numeracy, & more!)

The above list serves as a guide to get you started with brain games. There are many other options to try. Many brain game sites include a wide variety of games and progressive levels of intensity to keep your brain fitness routine varied and the mind “sweating” during your intended workouts. Have fun!

Are playing video games really the answer to combat brain aging and memory loss? No, the research surrounding brain games clearly outlines their limitations by stating they can potentially offer brain benefits and that they are not proven to be 100% effective. What they do say is that brain games cannot hurt in the long run.

However, no one should be relying solely on games for their memory needs or brain fitness. Brain games can be an enhancement to our current cognitive engagement routine and challenge beyond paper and pencil tasks, board games, and other apps. Brain games offer us novelty and various levels of challenge, which is vital to our ongoing cognitive fitness goals.

If you would like to read more information on brain games and how they can help your memory, we suggest that you check out these articles: Mind games: do they work? and Video Game Training Enhances Visuospatial Working Memory and Episodic Memory in Older Adults. We hope this article might inspire you to give brain games a try. After all, engaging in something new is the best exercise for our brains; novelty is key, and playing new games can keep your brain active. Let us know about your brain games experience below.

An open invitation to join the Virtual Brain Health Center’s upcoming free class on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, at 7:00 PM EST on “How Games Affect Our Brains & Support Our Health” offered by Kali Sarver.

In brain health & wellness,
Krystal & Kali


Disclaimer: This blog is written for informational purposes and is not intended to promote any specific type of brain gaming product, app, or technology. Please use caution when purchasing any product that makes specific claims not backed by high-quality research related to your personal brain health with a hefty price tag. Here is a great resource to help you locate a brain game that would work best for your intended purposes from Sharp Brains, “The 10 Questions to Choose the Right Brain Fitness Program for You.”


**Written for “EngAGE Your Brain!” blog series for Northeast Ohio Boomer & Beyond Magazine. Read the original article post here.

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