We keep seeing advice that it’s important to keep our brains active, especially to delay the onset of dementia, or at least of its effects.
But is this true? And if so, what should we do about it?
Will a daily crossword or Sudoku be enough?
The UK Alzheimer’s Society says that: “Keeping your mind active is likely to reduce your risk of dementia. Regularly challenging yourself mentally seems to build up the brain’s ability to cope with disease. One way to think about it is ‘Use it or lose it’. Find something you like doing that challenges your brain and do it regularly. It’s important to find something that you’ll keep up. For example: study for a qualification or course, learn a new language, do puzzles, crosswords or quizzes, play card games or board games, read challenging books or write (fiction or non-fiction).”
The US Mayo Clinic is less certain: “There’s no sure way to prevent dementia, but there are steps you can take that might help. More research is needed, but it might be beneficial to do the following: Keep your mind active. Mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, solving puzzles and playing word games, and memory training might delay the onset of dementia and decrease its effects.”
It seems to be well-established that exercising the brain will improve cognitive function in some way. For example, some online games have proven that continued playing of the game results in improved scores.
However there’s no solid evidence yet that exercising the brain in this way will delay the loss of cognitive ability associated with dementia, or slow its progress. Basically, playing Sudoku regularly may be enjoyable, but all it perhaps does with your brain is improve your ability to play Sudoku.
An experiment in a recent BBC TV programme, involving learning a second language, did show an improvement in attention, memory and mental flexibility.
Their neuroscientist expert explained that while exercises like Sudoku exercise only one region of the brain, practising languages engages about 20 different regions, improving connectivity throughout.
It does seem that you have nothing to lose by learning a language, and it certainly will improve overall cognitive ability more than any game or puzzle.
And the bonus is that it’s possible that it will also delay any onset of the signs of dementia by 4 or 5 years.
But of course, a probably even better way to protect your brain, than brain training, is by consuming a healthy diet, and taking regular physical exercise.