Forget brain training – get a hobby, new research shows

New research from the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) shows that starting a variety of new hobbies can protect against cognitive decline. However, brain training games have little if any effect.

The GCBH, an independent collaboration of scientists and health and policy experts from around the world – including Age UK – is working in areas of brain health related to human cognition.

The Engage Your Brain study looks at a number of issues including the confusion around brain training – such as online games, puzzles and mind games, designed to improve brain health.

Using statistics from a 2015 survey on brain health, it shows that more than nine out of 10 Americans aged 50 and over think that challenging the mind with games and puzzles is important to maintaining or improving brain health, while two-thirds also think playing online games designed for brain health is similarly important.

However, the study, based on scientific evidence from well-designed randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and epidemiological observational studies with substantial sample sizes, found the evidence regarding the benefits of this type of training was weak to non-existent.

Instead, the report made nine recommendations for those over 50 to help support their brain function:

  1. Find new ways to stimulate your brain. Novelty is important to challenge the brain continually and is an element in making even routine cognitive activities interesting and challenging.
  2. Engage your brain along with someone else. Pick a skill or hobby that you want to learn and find a friend to do it with. Social aspects of activities that challenge your brain can help inspire you to continue your efforts. Activities can also provide the perfect place to meet new people.
  3. Choose an activity that you enjoy, making it easier to stay motivated and committed.
  4. Make it easier on yourself by selecting accessible activities which fit in with your schedule.
  5. Aim for purposeful and mindful practice, especially if you are taking up a new or challenging hobby.
  6. Find an activity where someone will notice whether you are present. Someone who checks up on you if you miss a session can be an additional motivating factor to keep you going.
  7. Use life stages and transitions to change things up. Think about life changes such as moving, changing careers, or retiring as opportunities to try new things.
  8. Study something that interests you. Enrol in continuing education classes at a local adult education class or with the University of the Third Age (U3A).
  9. Choose activities involving both mental and physical engagement. Physical activity has been shown to improve cognition in adults, so choosing activities such as dancing or tennis that involve both mental engagement and physical exercise is a wise use of your time.

Other activity suggestions include:

  1. Practising Tai Chi increases mindfulness and can reduce the risk of falls.
  2. Researching your family tree can provide great intergenerational learning.
  3. Photography classes can further trigger interest in wildlife, architecture or sports.
  4. Cooking, especially if you follow recipes for a healthy Mediterranean diet.
  5. Gardening can build muscle and create a sense of wellbeing from being out in nature.
  6. Learning new technologies can support communication with friends and family.
  7. Creative writing can help you to recall and structure your thoughts and feelings.
  8. Art projects are accessible and stimulating.
  9. Volunteering encourages a sense of being valued and, according to a Johns Hopkins study, increases the size of the hippocampus and brain volume.

Click here to read the full report.