There is growing belief among health experts that the mental exercise involved in playing some board games — word games and strategy games, for example — can make children and teens smarter, while helping adults stay sharp and ward off degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. Achieving these benefits can be as easy, and as fun, as organizing weekly family games of Word Sweep! or Scrabble, completing daily crossword or Sudoku puzzles, or even regularly playing the online version of the hit strategy game Blokus.
Adults can benefit from playing board games and computer puzzles that require concentration on problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, says Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, Ph.D., a clinical professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine and author of the book, The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger as Your Brain Grows Older.
"Evidence is growing that cognitive exercise, such as game playing, may have a relatively lasting, positive effect on cognitive health," Dr. Goldberg says, adding that the three principles for good brain exercises are novelty, variety and constant challenge. "The challenge is to make such exercise sufficiently varied."
In fact, according to studies cited on the research Web site, www.SharpBrains.com, individuals who lead mentally stimulating lives have 35 to 40 percent less risk of developing symptoms of Alzheimer's.
So which new board games offer the latest variety of brain-stimulating challenge and fun for 2008?
Word Sweep! recently became the first game endorsed by leading dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster. The game asks players to use clues to identify consecutive words from the dictionary. For example, which word follows "walrus" in the dictionary? (Clue: it's a type of dance.)
The game, which was invented by a former teacher and father of three, is recommended for ages 10 and older, so everyone from children to adults can play together.
Other games for all ages that provide a mental workout include WordSpot, a game where players search for words hidden among random letters on a grid, and Last Word, a game where players try to be the last person in the group to say, for example, a vegetable that starts with the letter "C." (Hint: There are least 10 that start with "C".)
Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D., child development expert and professional toy reviewer who goes by the nickname "Dr. Toy," says that brain-stimulating activities such as games not only benefit adults but also can help children and teens become better students in school. Auerbach says that active educational play helps children develop such basic social and academic skills as concentration, problem solving, communication and cooperation.
"When kids play at home they gain additional skills that complement their classroom studies," Auerbach says. "Kids not only improve mental skills, but also their social skills."
The benefits of games should give everyone something to think about. The next time you're headed off to the gym to exercise your body, why not pick up a crossword puzzle as well!