Neil Charness, Ph.D.

If you’d like to help residents keep their brains fit as they age, you may want to focus on aerobic exercise, not “brain games,” suggests Neil Charness, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Institute for Successful Longevity at Florida State University.

Physical exercise, he said, actually can cause beneficial structural changes in the brain and boost its function.

A recent study by Charness, with Wally Boot, PhD., associate professor of psychology, and graduate student Dustin Souders, tested the theory that brain games help preserve cognitive function. The researchers had one group of people play a specially designed brain-training video game while another group did crossword games or number puzzles.

All players were given a lot of information they needed to juggle to solve problems. Researchers tested whether the games enhanced players’ working memory and, consequently, improved other mental abilities, such as reasoning, memory and processing speed. The answer, they found, is no.

“The thing that seniors in particular should be concerned about is, if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are? And the answer is probably no,” he said.

But Charness said the findings, published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, aren’t a reason for people to be discouraged.

“If your real goal is to improve cognitive function and brain games are not helping, then maybe you are better off getting aerobic exercise rather than sitting in front of the computer playing these games,” he said.

Charness predicted that “exer-gaming,” which combines exercise with brain games, will increase in popularity.

Read the whole study here.