Playing cards and board games like chess, bingo and Scrabble might be the mental workout you need to keep your wits as you age, Scottish researchers suggest.

People in their 70s who regularly play board games score higher on tests of memory and thinking skills than those who don’t. And 70-somethings who step up their game-playing are more likely to maintain thinking skills as they age, researchers say.

“Playing board, card and word games may protect people from cognitive decline, but this study wasn’t an intervention, so we can’t say that for sure,” said lead researcher Drew Altschul, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Edinburgh. “But it, at very least, is fun, inexpensive, and it certainly won’t hurt you.”

He doesn’t think it’s the social aspect of these activities that provides this brain-protective effect, but rather the challenge of the games themselves.

Unlike reading, writing, taking classes, visiting museums, libraries or friends and relatives, games appear to more actively engage abilities like memory, thinking speed and reasoning, Altschul said.

“So, this fits with what we call the ‘use it or lose it’ theory, that exercising your mental abilities more keeps them in better shape,” he said.

For the study, Altschul and his colleagues tested the memory, problem-solving, thinking speed and general thinking ability in nearly 1,100 70-year-olds. The tests were repeated every three years until participants reached age 79.

The researchers also asked how often participants played games such as cards, chess, bingo or crossword puzzles.

To isolate the effect of game playing, they took into account results of IQ tests participants took at age 11, as well as their income, education and physical activity levels.

People who played more games as they got older had less decline in mental skills in their 70s, particularly in memory function and thinking speed, researchers found. However, the study only found an association, not a cause-and-effect link.

How the brain changes with this type of activity is unknown, but researchers are working hard to learn more, said Rebecca Edelmayer, director of scientific engagement at the Alzheimer’s Association.

“There’s actually a lot of research that’s happening in this particular area right now focused on cognitive challenge, cognitive engagement and how we can use this as potentially a way to reduce our risk for cognitive decline,” she said.

Just like keeping the body active helps keep heart disease at bay, being mentally active may have the same effect on dementia, Edelmayer said.

“It seems that challenging and complex tasks, or even things like games of strategy, may require multiple cognitive functions that may be most beneficial for individuals as they age,” she said.

Edelmayer predicted that Alzheimer’s and other dementias will one day be treated much like heart disease. “You will see not only medications that are approved to treat dementia, but also ways that we could be changing and modifying our lifestyle to decrease our risk for cognitive decline,” she said.

A large trial is testing whether a combination of social and cognitive engagement, along with healthy nutrition, physical activity and effective management of heart health might help preserve mental function, Edelmayer said.

“Those factors, tested together, can potentially help us understand better what a recipe for beneficial lifestyle intervention would be,” she said.

The report was published Nov. 25 in the Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences.

More information

For more on keeping your brain healthy, visit the Alzheimer’s Association.