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In response to the news of Bruce Willis’ diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia (FTD), there has been a lot of discussion around dementia, the wide-range of forms it can take (such as Alzheimer’s and FTD),and the impact cognitive decline can have on individuals and their loved ones.
Luckily for Willis, his family has been a huge source of support for the actor, 67, as they work to ensure he receives the care he needs. "The focus for Bruce is to keep him active. He has a busy schedule with activities every day. They make sure both his body and brain is exercised," a family source tells People.
This emphasis on staying active—both physically and mentally— is incredibly important for anyone as they age, but especially for those who have already exhibited signs of cognitive decline.
“Dementia is characterized by plaque buildup which impairs various parts of the brain responsible for cognitive function,” Nancy Mitchell, a registered nurse with over 37 years of experience in geriatric nursing care, explains to Health. “Studies show that brain games and thinking activities may help keep these brain cells active and stimulated, thus slowing the progression of cognitive decline.”
In addition to a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet, fresh air, exercise, and socializing with others, the following items can help boost brain function for anyone looking to improve their cognitive skills.
Just as you would exercise your body to keep in shape physically, you must continue to exercise your mind. Brain teasers, word-search puzzles, and other games specifically designed for those with cognitive impairment are all great options for giving your brain a good “workout.”
- 399 Games, Puzzles, & Trivia Challenges Specially Designed to Keep Your Brain Young $17; fatbraintoys.com
- Easy Relaxing Puzzles $8; amazon.com
- Keep Your Brain Stronger for Longer: 201 Brain-Teasing Exercises for Anyone with Mild Cognitive Impairment $16; amazon.com
- The Easy and Relaxing Memory Activity Book for Adults $10; amazon.com
- Funster 1000+ Sudoku Puzzles $13; amazon.com
- Dementia Activities for Seniors $10; amazon.com
Board and Card Games
Just like brain teasers, board and card games stimulate the mind in a way that is both entertaining and beneficial for boosting cognitive function.
“Cards open an opportunity for seniors to socialize with friends and family,” says Mitchell. “Group activities encourage patients to exercise the faculties responsible for controlling speech and motor skills.
“Most people view dementia as a physiological issue, but it also impacts the social and emotional wellness of patients. Beyond the physical benefits of games, they also provide patients with a distraction from the worries that come with cognitive decline. They need a break from focusing on themselves every once in a while.”
- Bicycle Playing Cards $7 (was $8); amazon.com
- Amerous Chess Set $31 (was $50); amazon.com
- Hasbro Scrabble Board Game $17 (was $22); amazon.com
- Regal Games Deluxe Bingo Set $23; amazon.com
- Hasbro Yahtzee $9; amazon.com
- Hasbro Guess Who? $7 (was $17); amazon.com
- Pressman Checkers Board Game $9 (was $10); amazon.com
Studies have shown that jigsaw puzzles can have a positive effect on cognitive function, with benefits including better problem-solving skills and improved visual-spatial reasoning. Additionally, they’re known to help improve mood and lower stress levels, both of which are important when managing anxiety due to cognitive decline. Just be sure to work your way up, starting with puzzles that have fewer, larger pieces to prevent undue frustration.
- Dementia Puzzles Garden Puppy Large-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle $22; amazon.com
- “Keeping Busy Around the Birdfeeder” Color-Coded Jigsaw Puzzle $23; amazon.com
- Dementia Puzzles Autumn Courtyard Large-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle $22; amazon.com
- Relish 100-Piece Great Outdoors Puzzle $22; amazon.com
Pickleball is a very popular racquetball sport among seniors because it is a low-impact aerobic workout that’s fun without being overly taxing. And like exercise in general, studies show regular practice of pickleball not only helps improve physical stamina but cognitive function, as well. All you need to get started is to learn the rules, grab a friend, and invest in a simple pickleball set like this one by Asbocer.
To buy: Asbocer Pickleball Set $47 (was $70); amazon.com
“Depression and anxiety are common symptoms of dementia, especially among patients with Alzheimer’s disease,” explains Mitchell. “Patients progressing through dementia are sometimes irritable, which is understandable, given all the unprecedented changes they’re experiencing. Meditation may be an excellent tool to help them navigate this stage of life and cope with the resulting emotions that surface.”
Though the correlation has not been extensively studied, according to the National Library of Medicine, research suggests that “meditation can enhance various cognitive functions, including attention, memory, and executive function, and that it positively affects brain function and structure relevant to cognition.”
Whether you’re new to meditation or more advanced, a guided meditation app like Headspace can be very helpful. However, it is most helpful for those with mild cognitive decline who can still navigate technology enough to download and use an app regularly. Otherwise, they may need the assistance of caregivers.
To buy: Headspace app $69.99/year; headspace.com
Marble Maze Game
For dementia sufferers whose cognitive impairment is more advanced, something like this marble maze track game is a great option for working on both dexterity and coordination.
The game has an average rating of 4.3 stars on Amazon with one customer writing, “I purchased this for my father who has Alzheimer's and early Parkinson's Disease. He loves it and carries it around with him everywhere. He likes to show people that he can do the maze and is excited to teach other people how it works. It was a much better gift than expected!”
To buy: Relish Marble Maze Track Game $30; amazon.com
Reading is a universally beneficial hobby and frequent reading is associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline in older adults. Whether it’s a romance novel, a mystery, or a biography the topic doesn’t matter as long as you’re exercising your mind.
An e-reader like Amazon’s Kindle allows readers access to thousands of books without needing to leave the home. Plus, for those with visual impairments, they can adjust the brightness level and font size as needed.
To buy: Kindle Paperwhite 2023 Signature Edition $190 (includes 3 months of Kindle Unlimited); amazon.com
“Language learning is an excellent technique to combat the effects of certain types of dementia,” says Mitchell. “For example, frontotemporal dementia—thought less common—affects the frontal and temporal lobes, which play fundamental roles in language comprehension and speech processing. Active language learning may preserve the health of cells in these regions, prolonging the cognitive abilities of patients with this form of the disease.”
- Learn Spanish for Adult Beginners $33 (or $0 with Kindle Unlimited); amazon.com
- Learn Italian for Adult Beginners $21 (or $0 with Kindle Unlimited); amazon.com
- Complete French Workbook for Adult Beginners $15 (or $0 with Kindle Unlimited); amazon.com
Plus, it’s safe for elderly patients. (For more weighted blanket options, we tested and reviewed the 9 best weighted blankets of 2023.)
To buy: Casper Weighted Blanket, 20lbs $99 (was $189); casper.com
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Fissler P, Kuster O., Loy L, et al. Jigsaw Puzzles As Cognitive Enrichment (PACE) - the effect of solving jigsaw puzzles on global visuospatial cognition in adults 50 years of age and older: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials. 2017; 18:415. doi: 10.1186/s13063-017-2151-9
Wray P, Ward C, Nelson C, et al. Pickleball for Inactive Mid-Life and Older Adults in Rural Utah: A Feasibility Study. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Aug; 18(16): 8374. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18168374
Gard T, Holzel B, Lazar S. The potential effects of meditation on age-related cognitive decline: a systematic review. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2014 Jan; 1307: 89–103. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12348
Telhede E, Arvidsson S, Karlsson S, Ivarsson A. Weighted Blankets’ Effect on the Health of Older People Living in Nursing Homes. Geriatrics. 2022 Aug; 7(4): 79. doi: 10.3390/geriatrics7040079