You likely already know to brush teeth to prevent dental cavities, work out to strengthen muscles and wear sunscreen to protect skin, you may not realize there are things you can do to keep your brain sharp.
For starters, a 2019 study of nearly 200,000 adults found that those who had a healthier lifestyle were less likely to develop dementia over the course of eight years, even if they were genetically at risk for dementia — and a 2020 study came to a similar conclusion. Beyond general healthy habits, though, specific activities have been shown to boost brainpower and prevent cognitive decline: brain exercises.
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Do brain exercises work?
Probably — but it’s complicated. “Memory is not one thing, but it’s a combination of different things so when we talk about exercises or training for memory, I think it depends on what type of memory we’re referring to,” says Zaldy S. Tan, M.D., M.P.H., the director of the Cedars-Sinai Health System Memory and Aging Program. Consider a trip to the grocery store: Remembering what you intended to buy without having a list to look at requires an ability to recall things. Remembering the layout of the store and where to find things requires more of a visual/spatial memory. Running into a peer from elementary school, remembering how you know them and holding a conversation requires a quick processing speed on top of recall.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to study the effects that certain activities have on our brain. It’s not as simple as say, watching someone practice bicep curls every day and seeing their muscle girth increase over time. “The things that we’re engaged in on a day-to-day basis that are not specific to deliberately improving our memory — for example, reading a book, attending classes at a junior college because we’re interested, listening to NPR or something else that will expand your view of the world or watching documentaries — those are all great, but they haven’t been studied for us to conclusively say that if you do all of these things, you’re less likely to develop memory problems,” says Dr. Tan. “Speed of information processing can be enhanced by cognitive training by computer-based tests, for example, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.”
That said, engaging in certain exercises (even if they’re specific to one type of memory skill) can’t hurt and may even help you in the long run. “Increasing these synaptic connections — increasing these areas of connections in the brain — that might help build reserve,” says Douglas Scharre, M.D., the director of The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center Division of Cognitive Neurology. “If, in the future, you have unfortunate issues that affect the brain, such as strokes or dementia conditions, you’d have a little bit more reserved.”
Brain exercises for memory to do at home
Your best bet is to all different kinds of things that exercise your brain in different ways. “Variety is great,” says Dr. Scharre. “The more you do with your brain, typically, the better it is.” This list of exercises for your brain can help get you started.
1. Work out
It seems one of the best things you can do for better cognition is physical exercise. It increases blood flow to the brain; reduces the risk of stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes (three risk factors for developing memory problems); and lowers inflammation oxidation (which has also been implicated in dementia), according to Dr. Tan. In fact, a 2023 study of nearly 1,300 women age 65 and older found that for every 31 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a participant did every day, she had a 21% lower risk of developing dementia. Meanwhile, a 2022 meta-analysis concluded that people who regularly participated in walking, running, swimming, bicycling, dancing, yoga, sports and exercise machines had a 17% lower risk of developing dementia than those who didn’t. New to exercise and not sure where to start? Check out our list of the 10 best cardio exercises to try at home or in a gym.
2. Play a sport
If you want to take the benefits of exercise to a whole new level, consider a sport that requires you to play with other people. On top of the physical exercise, research shows that sports require you to make quick decisions and solve problems (Where is my teammate? Should I run faster? Which strategic play might work best right now?) and give you the opportunity to socialize with others, Dr. Scharre points out. “The whole brain is working really well, and it’s a great whole-brain activity,” he says.
Seriously, getting together with other people is extremely good for your brain. “You have to use your eyes to see their expressions and nonverbal communications. You pick up things that way, and you make judgements,” explains Dr. Scharre. “They tell a story, you’re reminiscing and think, Oh, in regard to that topic, I have a great story to tell, and then you share your story. You go back and forth with this thing called discourse. You’re using your language, you’re using your vision, you’re using your hearing. All these parts of the brain are being involved and integrated.” If you can’t meet in person, pick up the phone and call someone — you’ll give a little brain boost to both of you.
4. Do some math
The next time you open the calculator app on your phone, research suggests you might want to pause for a second and decide if the math problem at hand is something you can solve without technology. In fact, one study found that senior citizens who given basic math and reading problems to work on every day for six months experienced boosts in processing speed and executive function.
5. Learn a new language
Knowing two languages allows you to connect with others you may not have communicated with before, makes travel easier and supports a healthy brain. A 2020 meta-analysis found that people who are bilingual develop dementia at a later age than people who only speak one language. It may sound like a big commitment, but we found the best language-learning apps to get you started — and some are totally free.
6. Become a puzzler
Doing a variety of puzzles is the key here since different ones engage different parts of your brain, but number games, crosswords and jigsaw puzzles may be particularly helpful. “Sudoku is great for logic — that’s the frontal part of the brain. Crosswords increase your abilities to store vocabulary and think of words on your verbal side,” says Dr. Scharre. “Jigsaw puzzles may be more of a visual/spatial thing.”
7. Play an instrument
Performing music requires you to mix the physicality of touch with remembering and hearing — in a short amount of time. One study even found that people over age 60 who took piano lessons scored higher on tests of episodic memory and attention six months later than people who didn’t. Episodic memories are things we remember that happened in the past (whether it be 30 years ago or 30 days ago).
In one study, people with mild cognitive impairment or mild Alzheimer’s disease who did 30 minutes of guided meditations every day for six months showed slower degeneration in crucial brain areas than people who didn’t. New to meditation? We researched a whole bunch of meditation apps and compiled a list of the best ones to help lower anxiety.
9. Stimulate your senses
Opt for activities that require you to use several of your senses. For instance, when baking an apple pie, you might feel the dough as you form the crust, hear and smell the apples sizzle on the stove if you pre-cook them, visually pay attention to what you’re doing as you assemble everything and then, of course, taste the fruit of your labor. Research suggests that when senses interact it helps us remember things better.
You may not think of it as a brain exercise, but high-quality sleep is essential for our brains to function at their best. In fact, sleep helps “improve memory recall, regulate metabolism and reduce mental fatigue,” according to one research analysis. While we’re snoozing, our brain is busy removing toxins and reorganizing itself so if you don’t get at least 7 hours of high-quality shuteye night after night, don’t be surprised if you experience brain fog among other problems. If your sleep routine could use a little refresh, try these strategies for resetting your nights.
The bottom line: “The thing with dementia is that there is a pathologic mechanism to it, meaning for Alzheimer’s for example, you develop amyloid plaques and tangles,” says Dr. Tan. “Just doing cognitive training isn’t going to prevent you from having those things, but it might help you reduce the risk of developing symptoms.” So, it’s important to engage your brain in a variety of different ways right now so you have a little more leverage if things go south later on. Along those same lines, remember that your brain works with nearly every other system in your body — it’s not a soloist. “If your heart is unhealthy, that can affect the brain because the brain is the organ that needs the most oxygen in your system,” says Dr. Tan. “If your kidneys are not functioning well, then you accumulate more toxins that the kidneys filter from the blood. If your gastrointestinal tract is not healthy, then you won’t absorb the micronutrients that the brain needs to stay healthy.” Everything is connected so remember that when you’re trying to protect your brain, it’s best to focus on whole-body health.
Kaitlyn Phoenix is a senior editor in the Hearst Health Newsroom, where she reports, writes and edits research-backed health content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention and Woman’s Day. She has more than 10 years of experience talking to top medical professionals and poring over studies to figure out the science of how our bodies work. Beyond that, Kaitlyn turns what she learns into engaging and easy-to-read stories about medical conditions, nutrition, exercise, sleep and mental health. She also holds a B.S. in magazine journalism from Syracuse University.