A captive audience of eight hundred Catholic nuns, monks and priests, over the age of sixty-five, participated in a study to see if mental activity reduced their risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The researchers found that those who spent the most time each day engaged in mentally challenging activities were 47% less likely to develop this common form of dementia even though the activities the study determined were the most preventive, were not all that challenging. Activities such as reading, going to museums, playing board games, and even watching television were shown to protect against mental decline.

Considering that most card and board games require little brain power and are more about responding to chance (e.g. the roll of a dice or the shuffle of a deck) it shows you how little of the brain is used when watching TV. So, if relatively easy pastimes like playing cards, reading a book or going to museums can decrease your risks of dementia so significantly…imagine what even a few minutes each day of extremely challenging mind games can do for you.

Improve Your Memory, Concentration and Thinking Powers While Having Fun

That’s what I’m going to share with you this week – a few ways you can have fun in your free time, enjoy the company of others, while sharpening your memory – along with your ability to concentrate, think, and strategize. Even when you are resting physically – you can still be active mentally. Unless you’re in need of sleep, there’s really little reason why you can’t remain active mentally during your downtime. The mind really doesn’t get tired. It only gets “less conscious” (e.g. with fatigue, boredom, apathy or depression).

The two Brain Building Games I’m going to highlight were popular in the past. Charles Dickens was said to have played them with his family and mentions them in his writings. They are great for group settings. Ever run out of things to talk about at family gatherings? Don’t know how to spend time with your children or spouse unless the television is blaring? Try these. The long winter nights will just fly by…

The Long List

This first game needs at least two players plus a list keeper (who can’t play). There’s no limit to how many people can participate but 3-7 is a good number.

Here’s how you play…

  1. Player #1 says a word. It can be any word. The list keeper writes it down on a pad that
    nobody but the list keeper can see.
  2. Player #2 repeats the word which Player #1 chose and adds their own word. The list
    keeper adds the new word to the list.
  3. Player #3 repeats the first two words from memory and then adds another. The list keeper
    keeps track.
  4. Each player continues reciting the list and adding another word. When all players have done this it cycles back to the first player reciting the entire list from memory and adding a new word. This cycles through all players over and over again, creating a longer and longer list that the list keeper tracks (to ensure no one makes a mistake).
  5. If a player, when reciting the list from memory, makes an error they are disqualified and the remaining players continue.
  6. Eventually only two players will be competing. As soon as one makes a mistake the other player wins by default.

This game gets more and more challenging as the list of words to remember becomes longer. Next time you have a guest over entertain them with a few rounds. You can be a real winner at this game if you can immediately string the words together in a story as they are being said.

Hint: Create a story that strings the words together to help aid your memory. Visualizing the story also helps.

The Deductive Detectives Game

This brain game helps you develop deductive reasoning and forces you to think of lots of possibilities. It can be played with any number of players. Unlike the Long List Game no one is disqualified during the process.

Here’s how you play…

  1. One person picks a noun – a person, place or thing. They don’t tell the rest of the group but simply decide upon it within their own mind.

The noun needs to be something that they expect the rest of the group would know. For example, they should not pick the name of their mother’s great aunt. Make sure it’s a common noun, a figure from history, a well-known city or country, the name of a famous movie, or a common object. If you make the noun too obscure, it ruins the fun and purpose of the game.

  1. Once decided upon the rest of the group can take turns asking the person questions about the word that would only generate a “yes” or “no” response. For example, a good question to start with is: “Is it a person?” If they answer yes, you now can rule out places and things. If it’s not a person, then ask if it’s a place. If not, then you know it’s a thing.

Continue to ask questions that help you narrow down the possibilities of what the person is thinking about. “Is the person a male?” “Is the person an American?” “Is the person older than eighteen?” “Is the person still alive?”

Eventually you’ll start asking very direct questions once you’ve collected enough information. Questions like: “Is it Jimmy Carter?” “Is it Mahatma Gandhi?” “Is it JK Rowling?” The only other response – other than “yes” or “no” – that the person may respond with is “I don’t know” (since you may ask a question that they do not know the answer to).

Have fun with it. It’s a great game to play with children. The nice thing about it is that if you play long enough usually everyone has a turn at “winning” when they guess the name.

Here are a few other games for improving the gray matter…

Brain Expanding Computer Games

The Brain Metrix is an educational website self-described as a “brain fitness program.” They have games for training and testing your memory, reflex, concentration, and your brain’s creativity. The site includes “mental workouts” that can help your mind process information more quickly and more efficiently.

Focus more on the mind games on this site and not just the ones that test reaction time of your finger on your mouse or keypad. And be careful! These games can go from being some useful mental stimulation, to a way to waste time. But, still, better than watching mindless talk shows for endless hours.


Far, far more advanced than checkers, chess is commonly believed to have originated in sixth century India (complete with real live elephant playing pieces!). There are many rules that take time to learn – followed by hundreds of covert strategies.

Study after study has shown that children who play chess regularly do better in school and life. Chess makes you think ahead and realize the consequences, possibilities, and opportunities of each move you make – before you make it. It teaches you how to strategize and plan ahead. It helps your mind assess a situation – realizing its weak points and strong points. Your local library, YMCA or community center will probably have a chess club. Otherwise, there are many online sites where you can play with others virtually and also compete against chess software at increasing levels of difficulty. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming. One move a day is all you need to get the game going.

Board Games or Bored Games?

Is there anything more mind-numbingly boring than Snakes and Ladders? There are far more challenging board games out there that will really make you think – while allowing you to interact with family and friends. Here are some recommendations:

Mastermind: This challenging game involves players creating codes that the other players need to break. 

Keesdrow: This sounds rather foreign but it is in fact just “Wordseek” spelt backwards. Unlike Scrabble where you pull words out of a bag, Kessdrow has all the letters already on the board. You’re job is to rearrange them into words based on a specific scoring system.

Upwords: You could also call this three-dimensional Scrabble. It allows you to form new words on the board by stacking letters on top of other letters.

Wits and Wagers: The nice thing about this game is that it doesn’t take more than 20 or 30 minutes. It also has no downtime where the “star player” ends up hogging the spotlight. The game is similar to other trivia games except that you can put wagers down on the other players’ answers instead of your own. So, if your son knows more about dinosaurs than you – you can let him earn points for you.

• The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Game: This game has some long-term practical value. It involves answering multiple choice questions about how to survive various life and death situations – like fending off a shark.


Make It Happen

Try substituting one half-hour of TV “programming” each day with one of the many mind games included in this article. Preferably play them with other people… Or save the verbal games (The Long List and the Deductive Detectives) for car rides with the family.

Of course, if your line of work involves complex algebra for eight hours a day or programming the launch sequence for NASA shuttle craft you may not need to bother with such brain games. For the rest of us, however, it’s a “use it or lose it” situation.