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Keeping the brain active and stimulated in later life is just as important as staying physically active.

There are many types of cognitive exercise to consider, from card games to scrapbooking. Working with your relative to put together a cognitive exercise strategy can have a positive impact on their health and wellbeing.

On this page you can find information about all aspects of cognitive exercise, including:

1. What is cognitive exercise?
2. Will my relative benefit from cognitive exercise?
3. Cognitive exercises for people with dementia
4. Reminiscence work

What is cognitive exercise?

In simple terms, cognitive exercise involves activities that stimulate a person’s mental faculties. The aim is to improve or maintain memory, problem solving and logical thought processes in the same way physical exercise improves physical strength and general fitness.

Regular cognitive exercise can have a beneficial effect on mental capability in later life, particularly for those with dementia.

Will my relative benefit from cognitive exercise?

Cognitive exercises are beneficial for everyone, regardless of age and health. However, the level of cognitive exercise that is suitable will depend on a person's  mental and physical ability. 

Cognitive exercises for people with dementia

Healthcare experts advise that people with dementia should take part in cognitive stimulation activities, ideally as part of a group structure. You should speak to your relative’s GP or a dementia specialist to discuss the best options for them. As well as being able to advise on appropriate activities and exercises, they may be able to point you in the direction of local support services. You can also use our Care services directory to find local support.

There is such a broad range of activities available for people with dementia so it’s usually possible to develop a programme of cognitive stimulation that is tailored towards your relative’s capabilities and interests.

Examples of activities include:

  • board games, particularly those involving adding or counting
  • word games, such as crosswords, word searches or Scrabble
  • other games such as cards, dominoes, darts and chess
  • cooking/baking
  • gardening
  • reading
  • listening to the radio
  • reminiscence work.

This is just a small selection of the kinds of cognitive exercises to consider. The best way to put together a programme for your relative is to think about what kinds of activities they have always enjoyed. For example, if they enjoy gardening, you could spend time with them in the garden and consider activities, such as flower arranging.

Another thing to think about is how the activities can be adjusted as your relative’s dementia progresses. In the case of baking, for example, he or she will eventually need more help with tasks like using the oven safely and measuring ingredients.

Reminiscence work

Reminiscence work means using a person’s life history to improve their mental health and well-being in the present. It’s a form of therapy that is particularly beneficial when working with those with dementia. It involves using experiences and evoking memories from your relative’s past.

Don’t let the words 'work' or 'therapy' put you off – reminiscence work is usually an enjoyable experience for everyone involved, allowing you to feel closer to your relative and share their life experiences with them. Some good examples are: 

  • Music: you could sit with your relative and create a playlist of their favourite songs to listen to together. Listening to music can be very evocative, helping to prompt memories and discussions.
  • Create discussion cards from important years in your relative’s life, focusing on personal stories, experiences and events. There are a number of books and packs available now to help you plan these discussion prompts, many of which you can find at your local library.
  • Creation of a life history book or scrapbook: this is a particularly popular form of reminiscence work that can be enjoyed and shared with the whole family. The book itself can continue to be used throughout the stages of your relative’s dementia. A good idea is to create the life story book in the earlier stages of dementia, so it can later be used to stimulate conversation with your relative.

More information

  • Dementia and other memory problems: in this guide you can find comprehensive information about dementia and what to expect.
  • Tackling loneliness: this guide contains advice and tips on what you can do if you are concerned about your relative and loneliness.
  • Physical exercise: it's important to keep the mind and body active as we age. Find out about ways your relative can ease into a gentle routine. 

Page last reviewed: November 2016
Next review due: January 2019