So what do brain exercises actually do, and how do they impact your mental fitness? “Brain exercises keep your brain flexible and changing—this is neuroplasticity,” says neuroscientist Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D.
“When we learn something new, then we get the direct benefit of that new learning but also global benefits in the brain in our executive functioning such as emotional regulation, complex problem solving, creative thinking, etc.,” Swart adds.
Elane O’Brien Ph.D., psychologist and co-author of The Power of Play: Optimize Your Joy Potential, cites what’s known as the “theory of multiple intelligences” to further explain how brain games work.
When we use strategy to solve puzzles or play thinking games, we engage our linguistic-verbal intelligence and put thoughts and feelings into words. This helps develop our cognition and creativity. “Intellectual play and games involving problem-solving, thinking, and practicing new mental skills can teach us how things work in the world. There is an activation of concentration, strategy, and active thinking during playtime,” says O’Brien.
Swart adds that it’s important to play brain games throughout your life1—not just when you’re in school or when you reach older age. “Brain cells can start to shrink or die in your twenties2, so the age to start challenging your brain is when you are not naturally learning [as many new things],” she says.
For a general rule of thumb on when to prioritize different types of brain exercise, neurologists Dean Sherzai, M.D., and Ayesha Sherzai, M.D., directors of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University, previously told mindbodygreen that it may be helpful to focus on attention in your 20s, memory in your 30s, and executive function in your 40s and beyond.