Exercise helps build muscle and keep the body healthy. Do games and puzzles have a similar effect on the brain? Surprisingly, yes.

There are billions of cells in the brain sending electrical signals to one another. If a series of brain cells always fires in sequence, those cells form a strong connection. Like a muscle, these connective, neural pathways get stronger the more they are used. When the brain is damaged, it can build another pathway to send the same information. If an avid reader sustains a head injury, and the cells in the part of the brain responsible for interpreting and understanding text get damaged, for example, it’ll be easier for the brain to  restore or refresh pathways to help the person recover — and read books again.

Because of all the neural communication it takes to put together a puzzle, learn a new language, play a musical instrument, read a book, or play certain kinds of video games, it turns out that these activities  help to strengthen different parts of the brain. And engaging in these activities is like a workout that helps keep the brain fit, according to neurologist Majid Fotuhi at the NeuroGrow Brain Fitness Center.

“There’s a part of your brain in front that’s important for attention, concentration, and there’s a part of the brain on the side that’s important for memory,” Fotuhi told Being Patient. “You can work out these different brain areas just like you can work out different muscles.”

The evidence supporting brain-stimulating activities

Scientists have looked at the habits of older adults and introduced various games as interventions to research their effects on memory, attention, and communication. In a recent study published in the journal NEJM Evidence, researchers observed adults with mild cognitive impairment for a year and a half, and found that doing crossword puzzles  could be helpful to protecting brain health and even slowing down cognitive decline. 

Other studies have found that people who read and write are less likely to develop dementia or experience cognitive decline. 

Even video games may help people with mild cognitive decline stay sharp for longer, but more research is needed on this, experts say. Meanwhile there is evidence that certain kinds of video games benefit younger, healthy individuals, improving cognitive functions like processing speed and memory. 

Various brain training games, like Lumosity or Brain Age, consist of smaller activities aimed at enhancing different brain functions like memory or concentration. Unlike crossword puzzles and reading, there isn’t any evidence these platforms work. According to leading cognitive psychologist Fernand Gobet, professor at the London School of Economics: Studies so far have shown, doing well in one of these games only improves a person’s ability at playing these specific types of games, as opposed to transferring to real-life, everyday memory or concentration-related tasks. Gobet cites several studies that find no overall benefits from brain games. 

These “brain games” can also be pricy. A subscription to Luminosity’s web-based brain-training games platform, for example, costs nearly $60 per year. But according to Fotuhi, improving brain health isn’t something that has to be expensive or complicated. It is also never too late to start. “A lot of people assume that when they get older, they cannot improve their brain function, and that’s absolutely wrong,” he said. “It’s never too late.”

Simple activities like reading, playing puzzles, and video games can play an important role in staying sharp later in life. Alongside exercise, blood pressure medication, and a healthy diet, these strategies can meaningfully protect your brain health.