There’s no feel-good way to say it: cognition declines with age. Memory, processing speed, reasoning, and executive function generally get worse with every passing year. Despite that, we all know people who stay smart as a whip while they swing into old age, so cognitive decline is not guaranteed. If research can identify what is special about people who delay or prevent cognitive decline, maybe we can all maintain mental acuity as we age.
This topic has been in the news a lot lately, mostly due to a recent study purporting to demonstrate that brain training (in this case, a computerized speed-of-processing test) reduces the risk of dementia, and the effect lasts for decades, even with just a few sessions of training. The finding, which was one part of the long-term Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study, is interesting, but is based on unplanned analyses, and is not published in a peer-reviewed journal, so it is impossible to evaluate the details and judge its merits.
Leisure Activities Hint at What Makes a Healthy Brain
Other research has, however, provided hints that cognitive stimulating activities, even engaged in for leisure, are associated with reduced cognitive decline. A study by Ferreira et al. (2014) used tests from Cambridge Brain Sciences, completed by over 65,000 participants, to examine the link between cognitive leisure activities and cognition over the lifespan. The leisure activities asked about included crosswords, cognitive-training computer games, non-cognitive-training video games, and Sudoku.
- Crosswords were not linked with overall cognitive function.
- Cognitive training games were not linked with cognitive function either, confirming previous research that also found no brain training effects. The ACTIVE study’s bold claims are also called into question.
- Non-cognitive-training video games were associated with better performance in several cognitive domains, but only for younger (age 18 to 64) participants.
- Sudoku and similar puzzles were linked with better performance in both younger and older participants, lending evidence to the idea that Sudoku can help maintain cognitive function into old age.
When you add it all up, Sudoku was the winner. How does it work? The usual caveats about correlational studies apply here, so strong conclusions about causality do not follow from the science. One theory is that cognitively stimulating activities do not directly protect deteriorating brain structures, but they do strengthen neural connections in other areas in order to provide a “scaffolding” that compensates for the lost capacity.
We are left with tentative but promising conclusions: brain training still doesn’t work, but there could be other activities that do compensate for cognitive decline. Sudoku and video games have potential. The jury is still out on Pokémon Go.
The research above is one of more than 300 peer-reviewed studies that used the CBS Research platform from Cambridge Brain Sciences to gather data online, with no programming required. Visit CBS Research for more information and to try it in your own research.