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Keeping the brain active

Cognitive exercise can help us maintain our mental health as we age. Learn about the benefits and how it can help people with dementia.
3 min read
In this article
What is cognitive exercise? Will I benefit from cognitive exercise? Cognitive exercises for people with dementia
Reminiscence therapy

What is cognitive exercise?

In simple terms, cognitive exercise involves activities that stimulate a person’s mental faculties. Keeping the brain active and stimulated in later life is just as important as staying physically active. Regular cognitive exercise can have a beneficial effect on mental capability in later life, particularly for those with dementia.


The aim is to improve or maintain memory, problem solving and logical thought processes in the same way that physical exercise improves physical strength and general fitness. There are many types of cognitive exercise to consider, from card games to scrapbooking.

Will I benefit from cognitive exercise?

Cognitive exercises are beneficial for everyone, regardless of age and health. However, the level of cognitive exercise that is suitable for you will depend on your 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. If you are looking after someone with dementia, speak to their GP or a dementia specialist to discuss the best options. 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 the support groups part of our care services directory to find local support for people living with dementia.

Use our directory to find support groups for carers and people living with dementia.

There is 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 loved one's capabilities and interests.

Examples of activities include:

Checklist (ticks)
  • board games, particularly those involving adding or counting
  • word games, such as crosswords, word searches or Scrabble
  • number games, such as Sudoku
  • other games, such as cards, dominoes, darts and chess
  • cooking/baking
  • gardening
  • reading
  • listening to the radio
  • playing musical instruments or singing
  • reminiscence work (see below for more on this).

This is just a small selection of the kinds of cognitive exercises to consider. The best way to get started is to think about what kinds of activities your family member or friend has always enjoyed. For example, if they enjoy gardening, you could spend time in the garden together and consider activities such as flower arranging.


Another thing to think about is how the activities can be adjusted as the dementia progresses. In the case of baking, for example, your loved one will eventually need more help with tasks such as using the oven safely and measuring ingredients.

Reminiscence therapy

Reminiscence work means using a person’s life history to improve their mental health and wellbeing in the present. It’s a form of therapy that’s particularly beneficial for people with dementia. It involves using experiences and evoking memories from someone's past.


Don’t let the words ‘work’ or ‘therapy’ put you off – reminiscence work is usually an enjoyable experience for everyone concerned. If other family members are involved, it can help everyone to feel closer through the sharing of a loved one's life experiences. Some good examples of reminiscence work include: 

  • Music: you could sit with your friend or 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 loved one'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.
  • Create 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 different stages of dementia. A good idea is to create the life story book in the earlier stages of dementia, so it can be used to stimulate conversation later on.
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Further reading

Reading and writing

Read about the benefits of reading and writing as you get older, and how to incorporate them into your daily routine.

Taking exercise

Find out more about how to stay active and healthy in older age, with advice on doing gentle home exercise.

What is dementia?

We explain how to spot the signs of dementia and the difference between this condition and mild cognitive impairment.

Last updated: 23 Mar 2020