How to Improve Your Cognitive Function: Play Mind Games!

Scrabble pieces all over white table spelling out PLAY

The axiom “use it or lose it” doesn’t just apply to your muscle mass or that carton of milk in your refrigerator. The best way to hold on to your brain power — and your memory — is to use it. The less you use it, the faster you’ll lose it.

This may not be new information to you. For quite some time now, experts in the field of geriatric psychiatry have been advising us to exercise our brains along with our bodies as we get older. Not only can it help keep those neurons and synapses working as they should. It can also potentially ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

But that doesn’t mean you have to learn a new language, take music lessons or do a crossword puzzle every day — although those are certainly excellent ways to engage your brain. In fact, those may not be at the top of the list if you’re looking for ways to stimulate your memory.

It turns out that playing games of strategy or logic may be even more beneficial when it comes to working on our memory skills.

Just as a personal fitness trainer will recommend a combination of aerobic (a.k.a. “cardio”)  and strength-building exercises, psychiatrists, neurologists and gerontologists often suggest engaging in a variety of mental activities to exercise different areas of the brain. Plus, it helps to keep you (and your brain) from falling into the same old routine.

So, let’s take a look at putting some “fun” in “cognitive function,” shall we?

Memory Games for Adults

To get a clearer idea of some of the best activities for exercising the memory, we turned to Theresa Broxton, our Resident Services Program Manager. She is also a certified cognitive stimulator who has received specialized training in this area.

Theresa leads a popular weekly class called Mind Matters for independent living and assisted living residents here at Heron’s Key. She also works on a one-on-one basis with residents in our memory care area, seeking input from and lending support to their families as well.

During Mind Matters classes, Theresa engages residents with a variety of word and number puzzles, brain teasers (like Wacky Words), breathing exercises, memory games to improve recall and activities designed to make new memories.

“Technology does so much for us now that our brains have less to do,” Theresa said, adding that we have to work harder to counteract that.

“The memory goes faster when we don’t exercise it,” she said. “We need to be more intentional with our brain aerobics.”

Naturally, one way to strengthen our memory is to make new memories — a skill that can become more difficult with age.

Neurons in the brain die as a result of disease, a stroke and even the normal aging process. But research shows that we can form new neurons. While that won’t give us back memories that are lost, it does enable us to create new ones.

“To make a new memory, it takes 20 seconds to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory,” Theresa said.

Some examples she provided would be to write the information over and over or repeat it, either aloud or in your mind, for 20 seconds. You can also use visual cues such as pictures or form associations with information that’s already in your long-term memory (e.g., learning the name of a new acquaintance by associating that person/name with someone you already know). Rhyming or making a song out of the information (remember how you learned your ABCs?) are other “tricks” that can help with memorization. The key is to do one or more of these steps for 20 seconds.

“Rhythm and music are the last memories to leave the brain,” Theresa noted. People with advanced Alzheimer’s disease may not be able to communicate or identify family members, but if they hear a song from their past, it’s not unusual for them to sing along, remembering the lyrics, she said.

When asked about specific games that are good not just for stimulating the brain but specifically the memory, Theresa said those that involve logic or concentration are best. In other words, games and exercises that make you figure out an answer or solution — but not games of chance or luck.

She explained that crossword puzzles sometimes include clues that the puzzle doer may not know the answer to, which is why she said they aren’t necessarily the optimal option for strengthening the memory.

Games that a group of people can play are fantastic choices for older adults because of the additional social aspect. Some familiar games Theresa recommended include:

  • Charades
  • Balderdash™
  • Pictionary™
  • Trivial Pursuit™
  • Scrabble™
  • Chess
  • Checkers
  • Mahjong
  • Mad Libs™
  • Most card games


For single players, Theresa said number puzzles like Sudoku, as well as jigsaw puzzles and other types of puzzles that involve spatial reasoning, are good options. Because it involves pattern recognition and strategy, solitaire is another beneficial choice.

Online Memory Games

If you (or your parent or grandparent) enjoy playing games on a computer or tablet, you can find many memory games online, including digital versions of some of the games mentioned earlier.

You can also find digital games designed specifically for working the brain and memory. Most are available as apps that you download. Some are free, while others require a subscription. Some offer a basic version that is free and a deluxe or advanced version you pay for.

Here are several popular memory and puzzle games you can search for online:

  • Lumosity®
  • 4 Pics 1 Word©
  • NeuroNation©
  • Brainwell: Brain Training Game©
  • Elevate©
  • SharpBrains©
  • BrainCurls™
  • Memorado™
  • BrainHQ©
  • Smart Brain Puzzles©

Mensa even has an app that’s useful for older adults who want to work on their cognitive skills, called Mensa Brain Training™.

Whether you opt for a digital game or puzzle, a board game or a puzzle book, it’s important to choose an appropriate level of difficulty. The activity should be enjoyable. It should challenge, but not frustrate.

And bear in mind that arriving at the “right” answer or coming up with the “ideal” solution isn’t the main objective. It’s the brain activity itself that matters most.

Other Ways to Work Your Brain

Not everyone enjoys doing puzzles and playing games. If those kinds of activities aren’t high on your list of favorite things to do, there are other ways you can exercise your brain and strengthen your memory.

One suggestion Theresa offers to those who come to her classes is to do something different from your normal routine. For instance, she said, most people have a favorite grocery store. They know where to find what they’re looking for in that store, and they may even know the people who work there.

Does that sound like you? If so, then challenge your brain by going to a different grocery store. Or, if you always take the same route when going to a place that you frequently visit, try taking a different route.

“Our brain becomes conditioned,” Theresa said. “We need to stir it up and exercise it.”

An activity that Theresa likes to do in the Mind Matters classes is to have people think back  to a time in their youth or early adulthood and recall every detail that’s available to them.

An example would be to think of the first holiday you can remember. Then, try to recall what you  were wearing. Do certain scents or aromas come to mind? What about sounds? Was there music playing? Did you eat a meal? If so, can you remember what was served?

Other examples would be to remember as much as you can about the first home you lived in after you got married, or the birth of a child. The challenge is to dig back into your memory to access those tiny details. Use your sensory memories as an aid. How did things look, sound, smell or feel?

Theresa noted that it’s best to concentrate on happy occasions because those memories “light up the brain.” Sad memories, by contrast, tend to shut down the brain.

Journaling can help you  with this exercise. Jotting down the details as you remember them can free up your mind to search for more.

Making New Memories at Heron’s Key

If you’re checking out retirement communities in Washington state, then be sure to add Heron’s Key to your list.

Ours is the only Life Care community in the Gig Harbor area. Life Care ensures that all residents of Heron’s Key have unlimited access to advanced health care services such as assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing for the rest of their life, with no increase in their monthly fee for those services.

Incidentally, the memory care services we offer at Penrose Harbor, right here in our community, have garnered excellent reviews online. Just do a quick search and you’ll see what we mean.

We’d love to have you join us for  a tour of our campus and give you the opportunity to create some new memories while you’re here. If you’re interested, contact us to set up a time.

You can also follow us on Facebook. We regularly share helpful resources for older adults and families who are looking for information about senior living.