We'd all like to be able to pull out our iPhones, play a game for a few minutes, and improve our brain performance. But is that realistic? Can you improve your memory by playing Sudoku or daily crosswords? The answer is yes, according to the billion-dollar brain-training industry, but research is mixed. Studies evaluating the benefits of brain games and puzzles on memory suggest there may be some varying benefit according to age and the exercises being used.
Different Generations, Different Results
The cognitive advantage of puzzles and other similar educational games in young children is well documented. Research in developmental psychology has demonstrated a significant and reproducible advantage in memory, overall cognitive skills, and spatial skills in children who play with puzzles between the ages of 2 and 4 years old.
This benefit is more difficult to demonstrate in adults. The MacArthur Study, one of the most well-known longitudinal aging studies, tracked healthy, middle-aged men and women into their 80s. Researchers identified those whose mental abilities ranked in the top third, tracked them for a decade, and pinpointed factors that distinguished them from the others in their age group. What they found was that this group was more physically and mentally active — doing daily crossword puzzles, reading avidly, and playing bridge.
A 2017 study in the Journal of Neuroscience looked at the effect of brain-training games on cognitive performance in adults. In contrast to the MacArthur findings, subjects who engaged in brain games did not experience a significant improvement in memory compared to the control group.
But if we narrow the focus to adults who are 50 years and older, the evidence is more convincing. A study from the University of Exeter and Kings College London collected data from 17,000 people, age 50 or older, to examine the effect of specific brain exercises on cognitive performance. They found that the individuals who engaged in word puzzles had consistently better short-term memory, reasoning, and attentiveness than those who did not engage in such activities.
The most profound example of the need to improve memory is in older people who are more vulnerable to age-related dementia and Alzheimer's disease. The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study of individuals over the age of 65 found that consistently practicing word puzzles, memory games, and visual recognition tasks improved memory in test group subjects. This finding supports the theory that keeping the mind active, in addition to regular physical exercise, may help slow the onset of dementia.
Bottom Line: Can You Improve Your Memory?
While it appears that memory can be improved by engaging in regular brain training, certain exercises are more effective than others. Identifying which ones are most valuable can only be done through more controlled, randomized studies as research continues.
In our quest for optimal performance, it's important to remember this: Brain game apps may claim to improve your mood, memory, and even social skills, but only a few will actually deliver results.