Memory is a complicated process.
Your brain works round-the-clock to create and preserve memories. It flags those which are most important. It sorts and files others that you don’t use much. It keeps track of where all your memories are stored for easy retrieval when you need or want them.
If not for your brain, you’d have to keep millions of how-to manuals lying around. You wouldn’t remember how to walk, eat, wash your hands or gas up the car.
It pays, then, to be good to your brain.
The Memory Game Craze
It’s perfectly normal for your memory to fade a bit as you age, but the value of staying mentally active can’t be overstated.
Your brain kicks into high gear each time you give it a new challenge. This was verified during a recent study at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. As volunteers underwent brain scans while doing memory exercises, the scans showed remarkable changes in brain activity.
This experiment and others like it have made memory games for adults more popular than ever. Modern technology has stepped up to meet the demand.
Whether you prefer life on the cutting edge or old-fashioned ways of doing things, the memory game craze has something for everybody.
People never tire of playing the classics, which include:
This old-timer, once adapted into a television game show, is still around. A set of cards, each having an identical mate, is shuffled and arranged in a square with the cards face down. Players take turns viewing two cards at a time, hopeful of collecting matches.
Concentration boosts memory through visual reinforcement and the potential reward of finding enough matches to win the game. Also called Memory, it is now available online.
Chess, 20 Questions and Rubik’s Cube
Games like these improve sequence memory, which you rely on every day without even thinking about it. Everything from brewing your coffee to telling a joke requires sequence memory.
Chess players not only learn a staggering number of possible moves; masters of the game say that memorizing their opponents’ tendencies—and even their facial expressions—gives them the strategic upper hand.
In the parlor game 20 Questions, the identity of an animal, person or object is guessed. Players must mentally keep track of all questions asked and remember the answers.
Rubik’s Cube is a colorfully tiled block that, when correctly assembled, forms a pattern. Assembly tests your memory and your patience. You have to recall what you tried before and figure out why it didn’t work. If you change strategies, you might see that you were right in the first place and have to navigate your way back.
Rubik’s Cubes are frequently hurled across the room.
Murder mystery games
These do wonders for your memory and your social life.
Depending on the number of players and the complexity of the case, mysteries are usually acted out over a weekend in a venue such as a bed-and-breakfast. The games are ordered online beforehand and come in a staggering array of themes and costume ideas.
Each participant is given a role to play and a script, of sorts, that gives him information pertaining only to his own character. The object is to solve the mystery by piecing together the clues revealed by each character about himself.
Murder mysteries are maddeningly fun and provide a strenuous workout for the brain.
Video games boost coordination and muscle memory. While learning and remembering any new thing is a brain process, repetition speeds up brain-to-body connections. In time, the physical activity becomes almost non-conscious. Other ways to strengthen muscle memory include dancing, knitting, playing a musical instrument and practicing martial arts.
If the last game you played on your computer was Spider Solitaire, you’re way behind. Technology has brought sophistication and true science to memory gaming. Two notable front runners are:
Created by a Stanford University neuroscientist, this website boasts 50 million fans worldwide. It offers a variety of games for improving attention span, memory, problem-solving and verbal skills. You can create your own training program according to your needs.
If you tend to lose things, for example, or have trouble putting names with faces, Luminosity steers you to the right exercises. Games may involve facial recognition, recalling patterns or completing spatial tasks.
Posit Science developed the software for these brain-training games.
Posit has been tested by the National Institutes of Health and the Mayo Clinic with positive results. Some of its games were found to spark a broad range of brain functions. The brain scans of seniors who played Double Decision showed increased stimulation in regions responsible for memory and attention span.
In Double Decision, “drivers” must navigate their vehicles through increasingly complex backgrounds and cope with added distractions.
A major study called ACTIVE, Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, put 2,800 participants through hour-long BrainHQ sessions for six weeks. Five years later, participants still showed measurable improvement in reasoning ability, speed of processing, social skills, memory and overall intelligence.
Luminosity and Brain HQ also offer games for smartphone play.
Other Memory Game Phone Apps
Game applications for smartphones include:
This free, downloadable app aims to improve focus and concentration. Puzzles challenge players to memorize patterns and number sequences as they chart their own progress.
Four different games test players’ reaction time and accuracy. Brain Workout allows users to compete with friends and post their results on a global scoreboard. It’s one of the easiest apps to use.
Seventeen different kinds of brain teasers are offered on multiple levels of difficulty.
This app has three levels of difficulty. Players are timed as they memorize pictures, letters and number sequences.
• The Music Game, iPhone
The object is to recreate a random pattern of musical notes. Fans of the Music Game say it’s addicting.
AARP recommends several electronic games for seniors, including:
This game tests concentration as players identify new shapes by color and recognize when they go missing.
• The Squeaking Mouse
With practice, players can enhance both visual and audible memory. The object is to match animals’ pictures with the sounds they make.
Simon is a hand-held gadget with colored buttons. As a random sequence of tones is played, the corresponding buttons light up. The object is to duplicate the sequence by selecting the appropriate colors in order. Simon is another example of a sequence memory game.
Things to Bear in Mind
If you’re intrigued by memory trainers, particularly electronic games, there are some pitfalls you should avoid.
Some of the programs can be quite costly. Choose a handful that offer a free trial run. Make sure you like the game and plan to stick with it before you spend any money. Some of the old standbys like checkers and Concentration are just as challenging and a fraction of the cost.
While the long-term value of brain games is still being researched, all the experts agree that lack of exercise, poor sleep, unhealthy diet and social isolation are real memory-busters.
Tried-and-True Memory Aids
Regular aerobic exercise gets your blood pumping to send oxygen and nutrients to your brain. In a 2011 study, seniors who routinely walked showed increased volume in the hippocampus, a region that naturally starts to shrink with aging. In between games, stay physically active. Pick up a tennis racket or take a Zumba class. Go room to room and reorganize, throwing out clutter. Organizing is good for memory, too.
The brain performs some of its most vital memory tasks while you’re sleeping. Staying up all night solving brain teasers is counterproductive.
Improve your diet and drink plenty of water. Bananas, dark vegetables, garlic, carrots, fish and eggs are just a few of the foods with great mental benefits.
Studies prove that people who are socially engaged have far stronger memories than those who are not. If you choose games that are played individually, set a rigid time limit or play only on certain days. When you’re not playing, do volunteer work. Prepare a new recipe. Join a book club. Invite friends over for bridge or a few rounds of 20 Questions.
The Balancing Act
Truly healthy people seek mental, physical and emotional balance. If one is neglected, the others are likely to suffer.
Memory games won’t do you much good if they isolate you from friendships or distract you from other aspects of your health. You wouldn’t think of swimming, eating or talking on the phone all day every day. Likewise, playing games shouldn’t take over your life. For optimal benefit, think of memory-training as a supplement to a full, well-rounded life.
And remember: If you decide to play, play nice.