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Sudoku, crossword puzzles and more: does brain training really keep our minds sharp?

Many people regularly solve brain teasers to stay mentally young, as they are afraid of becoming forgetful in old age. But can they really improve our memory and even prevent dementia?

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A few years ago, a British study conducted by the University of Cambridge and the British Broadcasting Cooperation (BBC) caused much controversy. Over 10,000 test subjects took part and were asked to solve six brain teasers in ten minutes three times a week over a period of six weeks. Before and after the experiment, they were given a memory test to solve. The result: solving brain teasers had no measurable effect on logical and spatial thinking and short-term memory. Some other scientists also criticized the participants’ decidedly short brain training sessions.

A study by the Global Council on Brain Health came to a similarly sobering conclusion: While brain exercises keep the brain active, they do not appear to improve daily thinking skills. Nor do crossword puzzles and Sudoku seem to help reduce the risk of dementia. Many other studies back this up.

Specific exercises lead to the best results

However, very specific brain training exercises have been shown to have positive effects: US-based researcher Jerri Edwards reviewed more than 50 studies on what she dubbed “processing speed” and conducted her own research. Such specific exercises may involve identifying an object in the center of a screen full of other objects – while simultaneously detecting a specific object in the peripheral field of vision. Such exercises are used to train perceptual skills.

The result: The participants were also more alert in everyday life, even while driving. In addition, the older subjects were less likely to develop dementia. After ten years of follow-up brain training exercises, their risk of suffering dementia was reduced by almost half. They also tended to stay mentally sharp for longer.

In conclusion, whether brain training really delivers what it promises is a matter of debate and depends on the specific exercises. What is certain is that our minds stay young if we continue to learn new things – such as a new language or musical instrument -, socialize, eat well, drink plenty of water, and exercise our bodies.

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