Haven't played memory games since you were in grade school? Big mistake—as it turns out, your smarts are a "use it or lose it" phenomenon.
Aside from helping you locate your missing phone faster and cutting the time you spend spacing out at your computer, putting your brain through the cognitive wringer on the regular is associated with reduced risk of cerebrovascular disease (yes, that's a real thing) as well as greater brain neuronal density and cortical thickness, according to research published in Biological Psychiatry.
You've no doubt heard there are a bevy of brain games offered online; many of these actually work. "The brain really is plastic and can be trained to work more efficiently," says Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, who has studied the brain's response to training games. However, as the brain-fitness craze grows, so do the number of less-than-credible options out there, Dr. Gazzaley says.
Since you don't want to trust any old website with your credit card (not to mention your noggin), we dug into the research to find the brain-boosting games with serious science cred.
The Games: Exercises focus on memory, attention, brain speed, people skills (like remembering the name of that new colleague you just met), intelligence, and navigation skills. Most games replicate real-life tasks, like writing to-do lists and reading maps.
The Science: Besides being co-founded by Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a brain plasticity researcher and professor emeritus at University of California San Francisco, one study published in PLoS One found that after just 10 hours of training with Posit Science, 72-year-old gamers improved their visual working memory to be on par with 24-year-olds. Brain scans show that training is associated with a drop in neural activity—suggesting that the brain doesn't have to work as hard to take in and process info post-play.
Get Started: positscience.com, $14 per month or $96 per year.
The Games: When you sign up, you're able to select the specific areas of your memory, attention, mental speed and flexibility, as well as problem-solving skills you want to hone. As you work on these (largely by completing brainteasers) the site constantly updates your Brain Performance Index to show how your smarts have improved.
The Science: In a recent study published in the Mensa Research Journal, after playing Lumosity training games for 20 minutes a day for five weeks, participants improved on tests of visual attention by 20 percent and working memory by 10 percent.
Get Started: lumosity.com, $5 per month for an annual membership; monthly, two-year, and lifetime plans are also offered.
The Games: From Sudoku to drag racing, Cognifit's games feel like just that: games. As you progress, the available games and their level of difficulty adapt to your improved brain skills.
The Science: This year alone, one study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that CogniFit significantly reduced depression levels and improved task switching, multitasking, and executive control scores in patients with unipolar and bipolar disorder, while another study in PLoS One showed the games also improve sleep in adults suffering from insomnia. Plus, it has the support of the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
Get Started: cognifit.com, $10 a month and up depending on subscription preferences.