Contrary to popular belief, our brains don’t slow down with age. While our hippocampus does shrink a little in size, and the protective shield for our brain’s nerve fibres wears down, the connections between distant areas of our brain strengthen as we get older. This means that we might start struggling for particular words, or spend ten minutes scrambling around for our keys, but on the other hand, be better at detecting relationships between diverse sources of information, giving us the wisdom needed to see the bigger picture1.
The cognitive decline that comes with age can be a result of diseases such as Alzheimer’s (or another form of dementia), diabetes, heart disease, as well as issues such as depression, poor vision, and side effects of medication. Seniors are at a higher risk for all of these issues, which makes it critical for them to exercise their brains on a regular basis.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the best cognitive training exercises for elderly people, to help keep their minds sharp.
Reading is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things that we can do. Few other art forms allow us to so effectively step into the shoes of a character and understand their drives, fears, and loves, whether it’s a batty Spaniard from La Mancha who thinks he’s a knight, a small boy who lives under a cupboard, or a downtrodden civil servant living in a dystopian future.
As well as transporting us to vivid new worlds, reading helps to reactivate old neural pathways, strengthening them in the process, and making our brain healthier. It helps our memory too. When you’re reading a novel, you have to remember different characters, their deeds and misdeeds, and try to imagine where the story is taking you. Not only are old neural pathways being strengthened, but new ones are being created too. In fact, frequent brain exercises such as reading has shown to decrease cognitive decline for seniors by a whopping 32%,2 making it an incredibly valuable exercise, and one of the best cognitive exercises for elderly people.
Sudoku and crosswords
A recent large study showed that people over 50 who engage in games like sudoku and crosswords have better brain function3. This included both the speed with which they completed tasks, and their accuracy, making the two puzzles an effective way to reduce cognitive decline.
While the puzzles must be challenging for the positive effects to take place, it’s important not to undertake anything too difficult, as it’ll reduce the likelihood of it being completed, and then taken up again afterwards.
Daily newspapers are a great source for sudoku and crossword puzzles, with the added benefit of staying up to date with the latest news, and encouraging extra reading. A word of caution though: tabloid journalism can be morally questionable, using language that breeds hostility, intolerance, and fear, which over time, can cause its readers to adopt similar ideas. It’s best to stick to reputable newspapers if possible.
Studies show that jigsaw puzzles help to improve our memory, spatial skills, and our ability to collaborate, making them one of the best brain training exercises for the elderly. They provide a full-brain workout that is stimulating and enjoyable, and when completed in the company of others, provide priceless social connection that helps to thwart loneliness.
You might consider purchasing a puzzle for your elderly loved one that has meaning for them—perhaps a picture of the Hobart harbour where they grew up, or a Fijian island where they spent their 25th anniversary. Completing a puzzle that has meaning for them can make the experience even more satisfying.
Arts & crafts
As a creative endeavour, arts and crafts such as knitting, sewing, painting, and scrapbooking can provide a number of cognitive benefits for seniors, including improved spatial awareness, better dexterity, improved problem solving, and relaxation. Seniors might knit a blanket for the home of their newly-engaged grandson, follow a Bob Ross painting overflowing with happy little trees, or create a scrapbook detailing the most important moments of their lives. Being creative can be incredibly enjoyable and rewarding.
Card games such as poker, go fish, and solitaire can help provide vital stimulation for the brains of seniors, as well as offering valuable social interaction. And if there’s nobody around to play with, they can jump onto Facebook and challenge somebody online.
- Scrabble – this creative word-making game is great for memory retention, and is fun to play online.
- Word searches – word searches can help to improve our visual skills, and our ability to find and seek information.
- Nintendo Wii or Nintendo Switch – the Wii and Switch are awesome video game consoles that are easy to play, and can stimulate our motor and neuro functions.
- Chess – while challenging, chess is a great social activity that can improve our strategy skills.
Health issues tend to create cognitive decline as we get older, which makes it important for our elderly loved ones to exercise their brains on a regular basis. While this list of activities is by no means exhaustive, it offers some of the best cognitive training exercises for elderly people that are available, allowing them to stay just as sharp as their younger years.
- How memory and thinking ability change with age – Harvard Health, Harvard Health Publishing
- 14 reasons why reading is good for your health, Business Insider
- Helen Brooker, Keith A. Wesnes, Clive Ballard, Adam Hampshire, Dag Aarsland, Zunera Khan, Rob Stenton, Maria Megalogeni, Anne Corbett, The relationship between the frequency of number‐puzzle use and baseline cognitive function in a large online sample of adults aged 50 and over, International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry