Dementia causes a progressive loss of a person’s cognitive abilities, which are crucial for everyday functioning.

When someone has dementia, they may have trouble with memory, thinking, reasoning, or even language. Losing these skills can make it difficult for people with dementia to perform their day-to-day activities.

While there’s no cure for dementia, some treatment options can help alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life. For example, people often discuss the idea of using memory games for dementia that can help stimulate the brain. But what does the research actually say about the role of brain stimulating games for dementia?

In this article, we explore how brain games might help with cognitive functions, and the best games to play.

Games are among the many activities that can keep the human mind entertained and engaged. But more importantly, games can help keep our brains stimulated. This is extremely important for older adults, especially those at risk of dementia.

For example, a 2019 study that included older adults explored the impact of 16 weeks of combined physical and cognitive “exergame” training. The researchers found that there was significant improvement of working memory and executive function.

A 2019 study researched the effect of computerized cognitive training (in areas such as reasoning, memory, language, and attention) on the progression of mild cognitive impairment. Results of the study showed that the training increased the brain’s gray matter volume and may help preserve general cognition.

So, what do these studies have to do with brain games for dementia?

When someone has dementia, many of their cognitive skills are declining. These include some of the skills mentioned in these studies, such as memory and reasoning. And newer research has suggested that gaming may help improve these cognitive skills, especially in people with dementia.

Recently, one review from 2020 explored research on the role of serious games for dementia care. During the review, the researchers explored three types of games and their benefits:

  • Board games: These can help with cognitive functions such as memory, communication, and emotional regulation.
  • Video games: Video games can be customized to directly target different cognitive abilities, such as memory and reasoning.
  • Virtual reality games: These can provide both cognitive and physical reinforcement, depending on the type of game.

According to the review, when early stage and middle stage patients with dementia used serious games, they were able to improve a wide variety of cognitive abilities, including:

  • short-term memory
  • reaction time
  • problem solving
  • logical reasoning
  • communication

Still, despite a fair amount of supportive evidence for the role of games in dementia care, the literature is still relatively mixed. For example, a more recent analysis on the research surrounding brain games and cognitive impairment found that brain games weren’t more effective for improving cognitive function than control interventions.

Ultimately, while there’s some promise for the role of brain stimulating games for dementia, more research is needed.

We’ve known for decades now that games can be a great way to stimulate the brain. However, not all games are created equal when it comes to which skills they can train. So, here are some of the games that may support a wide variety of cognitive skills, especially for people with dementia.

Word puzzles

Word puzzles are a genre of games that focus specifically on language. Some games like Scrabble focus on letter and word arrangement, while other games like crosswords focus on word recall. However, there are a wide variety of forms that word puzzles can take, such as the recently released Wordle.

Research from 2015 suggests that playing games like crosswords puzzles, among other types of puzzles, may potentially lead to cognitive improvements in verbal learning, memory, speed, and more.

With this in mind, consider giving some of these classic word puzzles a try:

  • crosswords
  • word searches
  • anagrams
  • cryptograms
  • branded games such as Scrabble and Mad Libs

Jigsaw puzzles

Jigsaw puzzles are a type of puzzle game that are particularly beneficial for memory and reasoning. Jigsaw puzzles can range from simple puzzles that are easy to piece together to more complex puzzles that require a lot more hand-eye coordination and memory recall.

Because people with dementia often struggle with cognitive skills such as memory recall and reasoning, jigsaw puzzles may be an easy way to support these skills. And the best part about these puzzles is that there’s a little something for everyone, from simple cardboard jigsaws to three-dimensional jigsaw sculptures and much more.

Dice games

There’s a central component of luck in a lot of dice games. Most rely on a random throw of the dice. This makes games like Yahtzee and Bar Dice extra fun and competitive.

Older research from 2012 suggests that people with certain types of cognitive conditions, such as dementia, may experience a decrease in numerical and calculation skills. These skills can be practiced with dice games.

Here are some brain-simulating dice games that you can add to your repertoire:

  • Backgammon
  • Kismet
  • Liar’s dice
  • Shut the Box
  • Yahtzee

Card games

Card games rely on different types of playing cards to play. Card games can either use a standard deck of cards, like Rummy, or cards that are specific to the game, like Uno.

Card games are great for practicing skills such as reasoning, problem solving, memory, and concentration: the same skills which are often in decline in individuals with dementia.

With a wide variety of card games on the market, it can be hard to figure out where to start, so here are a few to get you started:

  • matching games, such as Go Fish
  • trick-taking games, such as Bridge
  • specific games, such as Uno
  • Solitaire variations
  • collectible games, such as the Pokémon Trading Card Game

Board games

Board games are a genre of games that use a premade board, along with pieces, which are moved or placed on the board. Most board games, especially newer ones, also use cards, dice, and other elements.

A 2019 study that explored the benefits of playing analog games, such as board games, among 1,091 participants found that a higher frequency of playing games resulted in less cognitive decline from age 70 to age 79.

Considering the impact that board games may have on cognitive health, here are a few suggestions to add to your collection:

  • Monopoly
  • Trivial Pursuit
  • Ticket to Ride
  • Cranium
  • Chess

Video games

Video games encompass a wide variety of electronic games, from traditional desktop computer games to games on newer systems like the Wii and Switch. And let’s not forget cell phone and tablet games, which are rising in popularity among older adults especially.

Recent research supports the theory that specifically designed brain training games may enhance cognitive functioning in older adults, especially in areas such as visual recognition, visual memory, and attention.

If you’ve never played video games before but are considering giving them a try, here are some good options to start with:

  • TETRIS on any platform
  • Candy Crush Saga, online or on mobile
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch
  • Wii Sports on the Nintendo Wii (it’s great for exercise too)
  • any mobile or app version of the classics, like word games, puzzles, card or dice games, and board games

Free games to play on your cell phone

Whether you’re a casual card gamer or a board game buff, everyone can appreciate a little freebie. Here are a few of our favorite games that you can try for free today:

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Games aren’t the only activities that can help support cognitive function in people with dementia. According to the experts at Dementia Australia, other activities that can be helpful include:

  • Reading: Reading is a wonderfully enriching activity that doesn’t just involve books. You can also read poetry, magazines, newspapers, comics, and other printed or online content.
  • Entertainment: Watching television shows or listening to radio shows are great examples of how modern entertainment can help keep the brain engaged.
  • Arts: Art comes in many forms, such as painting, drawing, and playing musical instruments. Any form of art expression is beneficial in people with dementia.
  • Learning: Learning new things, whether through a class, YouTube videos, podcasts, or other mediums, is a great way to reinforce cognitive skills in older age.

Some people with severe dementia may struggle to do even simple tasks, so some of the activities mentioned above may be difficult for them to engage in. If this is the case, consider sticking to simpler activities, like chatting and reminiscing, looking through pictures, and listening to music.

Should you play games by yourself or with another person, or does it matter?

While the research doesn’t say whether solo or multiperson games are better for dementia, we do know that different types of games offer different cognitive benefits.

For example, crossword puzzles are generally played alone and can be great for language and attention. But board games can also enhance these skills, and playing with others provides socialization and communication skills.

Can brain games prevent or delay dementia if you start them early in life?

According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), nothing has been scientifically proven to prevent or treat dementia. However, there are certain lifestyle changes that you can make to reduce your risk. This includes staying cognitively active and socializing with family and friends, both of which brain games can help you do.

Who is most at risk of dementia, and is there anything that can prevent this condition?

Science shows that the biggest risk factors for dementia are two things we can’t control: our age and our genetics. Aging is the biggest risk factor for developing dementia, and that risk doubles every 5 years starting at around age 70.

While certain lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of dementia, no approach has been shown to prevent it entirely.

Are there any medical treatments that can cure dementia once it’s developed?

According to the National Health Service (NHS), there’s no cure for dementia. But certain medications, cognitive treatments (such as cognitive stimulation therapy), and other lifestyle therapies may help manage some of the symptoms and possibly slow down the progression of the disease in certain people.

Dementia affects roughly 5 million adults ages 65 and older in the United States alone. And future projections show a huge increase over the next few decades.

Research suggests that brain stimulating games and other activities might improve cognitive functioning in older adults, as well as possibly reducing the risk of developing dementia.

But the exact role of brain games in dementia prevention and treatment is unknown, and more research is needed to determine just how helpful these games can be.

Still, even if we don’t know for sure whether games can help with dementia, we do know one thing: that they’re a fun way to keep the brain engaged, active, and entertained at any age.