Regular use of word and number puzzles may help keep our brains working better for longer. According to a pair of studies, adults aged 50 and over who are in the habit of solving crosswords and Sudoku scored much higher on cognitive tests, such as those that assess problem-solving and memory, than those who didn’t. In some instances, the differences were quite dramatic: people who regularly do puzzles had the cognitive abilities of those eight years younger, on average, compared to those who didn’t.
Researchers led by Dr. Anne Corbett of the University of Exeter Medical School surveyed participants in the PROTECT study, a large online cohort of over 22,000 older adults between the ages of 50 and 96, about how frequently they engage in word and number puzzles. The participants then had to undertake a battery of cognitive tests whose results are supposed to measure age-related changes in brain function. These include tasks that assess attention, reasoning, and memory. The results were striking.
Those who engage in crosswords had a brain function equivalent to ten years younger than their biological age on tests assessing grammatical reasoning and eight years younger than their age on tests measuring short-term memory.
“The improvements are particularly clear in the speed and accuracy of their performance. In some areas the improvement was quite dramatic — on measures of problem-solving, people who regularly do these puzzles performed equivalent to an average of eight years younger compared to those who don’t. We can’t say that playing these puzzles necessarily reduces the risk of dementia in later life but this research supports previous findings that indicate regular use of word and number puzzles helps keep our brains working better for longer,” Corbett said in a statement.
PROTECT is designed as a 25-year study and participants are followed-up yearly to assess how their brain ages and what lifestyle choices might influence the risk of dementia later in life. Despite tremendous progress, we still know little about how the brain ages or what causes debilitating neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. PROTECT may offer exciting research opportunities in the year to come.
The two studies published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry don’t necessarily conclude that solving puzzles will necessarily reduce the risk of dementia and keep your brain sharper. The findings are observational and it could just be that people who have a natural ability to preserve their brain function with age also have a tendency to use word and numbers puzzles. In other words, the study established a correlation but did not define causation.
However, the findings are consistent with previous studies. A 2011 experiment with participants from the Bronx Aging Study found regularly solving crosswords is associated with a delay in the onset of cognitive decline. Other studies came to totally different conclusions. When Scottish researchers tested nearly 500 participants, all born in 1936, and found a tricky crossword or a challenging puzzle will not fend off age-related mental decline. However, they did note that although brain games like jigsaw puzzles may not prevent dementia, regularly challenging yourself mentally seems to improve the brain’s ability to cope with neurodegenerative disease.
“We know that what is good for the heart is good for the head, and there are other ways we can reduce our risk of developing dementia,” James Pickett, head of research at the UK’s Alzheimer’s Society, told CNN, “by taking steps towards a healthy lifestyle, eating a balanced diet, avoiding smoking and heavy drinking, and exercising regularly.”
If you want to keep your brain healthy, paying attention to your diet is clearly shown to help, but the occasional puzzle can’t hurt either.