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Exercise for the brain?

Ask people the best way to keep their thinking skills sharp as they grow older and many would say keeping the mind active. But is this true? Dr Alan Gow of Heriot-Watt University, as part of our Staying Sharp series, looks at the evidence.

My advice

  • For now, the evidence for specific 'brain training' programmes remains inconclusive.
  • If you do games and puzzles because you enjoy them, then certainly continue.
  • In terms of what might offer the most benefit to help keep our thinking skills healthy as we age, research still has a lot of questions to address. But taking up new activities is probably worthwhile.
  • We can’t say for certain which activities might definitely help keep your thinking skills sharp, but doing hobbies and activities that we enjoy is important for quality of life and wellbeing anyway.

Use it or lose it?

The belief that 'exercising' our brains through mentally stimulating activities like puzzles, games and hobbies makes a lot of sense – if we want our brain to stay in peak condition, we should use it.

In fact, one of the theories about reducing or delaying cognitive ageing is referred to as the 'use it or lose it' theory. It’s a popular idea, but is it that straightforward?

Chicken or egg?

Studies of cognitive ageing often get people in older age to complete various tests of their thinking skills and provide details about the activities they regularly take part in. Almost all of those studies find that the people who do more mentally stimulating activities have better thinking skills in older age.

Why is this? One possibility is that the mental demands involved in taking part in stimulating activities keeps people’s thinking skills sharper. However, it could be the other way round: that people who have retained their thinking skills better in older age are more able to keep taking part in more mentally demanding activities. Even in studies that follow people over time, it is often difficult to tell these options apart.

And there’s a third possibility - that people who do more mentally stimulating activities in older age are those who had higher thinking skills to begin with, that is, from childhood onwards.

It’s clear from a number of studies that mentally stimulating activities are associated with better thinking skills in later life but we are still building the picture as to why and how, and what sort of activities lead to real benefit. More research is needed on different types of activities to test this.

Brain training on trial

The 'use it or lose it' idea is behind the growing market for so-called 'brain training' products. These are often computer-based games or tasks specifically designed to be mentally stimulating. The products are popular but there is controversy over whether brain training really does protect thinking skills in later life.

A group of leading research experts has argued that evidence that brain training can help combat cognitive decline as we grow older is limited. Their view was that people who play these games get better at them but might not see improvements in their thinking skills more broadly.

In January 2016, one of the biggest companies selling these products was fined by the US government Federal Trade Commission for making claims that weren’t supported by evidence and that, in the Commission’s words, 'preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline'.

Do more of the same, or do more?

Various broader research studies have looked beyond the effect of specific brain training programmes, or specific types of games and puzzles.

For activities to be effective in maintaining or improving our thinking skills as we age, they might need to challenge us in new ways according to these studies. That is, the most beneficial activities for us in later life might be doing things we’ve never done before.

One of the biggest studies had participants learning either digital photography or quilting, for example. The results suggested that the people in these 'productive-engagement' groups experienced benefits in terms of their memory performance.

Although the evidence on the benefits for our thinking skills is still incomplete, there are good reasons anyway for taking up entirely new activities – benefits such as increased engagement with other groups of people and the development of new skills.

There is evidence to say that keeping our social relationships active and doing hobbies and activities that we enjoy are important to maintaining quality of life and wellbeing in older age.

Mentally engaging activities

Read more about the ways to stimulate your brain and challenge the way you think in a new report from the Global Council on Brain Health.

About the author

Dr Alan Gow is an Associate Professor in Psychology at Heriot-Watt University and works with large studies of ageing and health at the Universities of Edinburgh and Copenhagen. His research centres on lifestyle factors that might protect or harm the ageing brain and testing real-world activities as a way to support healthy cognitive ageing.

Key references

For more information call the Age UK Advice Line on 0800 678 1602.
We’re open 8am to 7pm, every day of the year.

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Last updated: Sep 20 2022

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