A new study adds more evidence that puzzles can be effective for brain health.
The verdict is still out, however, on how they can help us in the long-term or if they can help prevent cognitive decline.
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According to a recent study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, the more people over 50 engage in games such as Sudoku and crosswords, the better their brains function.
Researchers looked at data from about 19,100 participants in the PROTECT study to see how often they performed word and number puzzles. Then they used a series of tests to gauge attention, memory, and reasoning.
In short, the more people engaged in puzzles, the better they performed on tests.
People who do puzzles have brain function equivalent to 10 years younger than their age, according to the study tests. On short-term memory tests, puzzle takers had brain function equivalent to eight years younger.
The cross-sectional data analysis evaluated testing on about 19,000 people. The data was self-reported, and participants completed cognitive testing online.
“The improvements are particularly clear in the speed and accuracy of their performance. In some areas the improvement was quite dramatic,” said Dr. Anne Corbett, lead author and dementia lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School.
“We can’t say that playing these puzzles necessarily reduces the risk of dementia in later life,” Corbett said. “But this research supports previous findings that indicate regular use of word and number puzzles helps keep our brains working better for longer.”
The researchers want to follow up with the participants as time passes. They also want to assess the impact of puzzle intensity as well as a factor in how long people engage in puzzles.
Dr. Jerri D. Edwards, a professor from the University of South Florida in Tampa who studies brain games and cognition, said that because the study is correlational — not randomized — it doesn’t mean that playing games causes better cognition.
“It is likely that people who have better cognition like these activities and tend to engage in them,” she told Healthline.
“Also, people without cognitive decline engage in these activities, but when they experience cognitive decline they are likely to quit doing so because they become frustrating or challenging,” she said.
She noted research that found cognitive engagement in old age can be a buffer from decline. She also cited research Trusted Source that found that poorer cognitive function can cause a reduction in lifestyle including social activities.
According to a large randomized clinical trial, computerized cognitive training targeting speed of processing was better at protecting against decline over time among older adults compared to crossword puzzles, Edwards noted.
“Given that verbal abilities tend to improve with age, we tend to get better at word-related games in normal aging,” Edwards said. “On the other hand, some cognitive skills that tend to decline with age are mental quickness, divided attention, ignoring distraction, and shifting our attention. It is important to challenge our brains with these types of tasks with age.”
She encourages cognitive stimulation but said she wasn’t aware of any evidence from randomized controlled trials that confirms it can improve cognitive performance or longitudinally reduce the risk of cognitive decline or dementia.
Dr. Jessica Langbaum, an Alzheimer’s disease researcher from Arizona, and associate director for the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative, said there’s evidence that doing cognitively stimulating activities such as puzzles can help with our abilities such as thinking, attention, and reasoning.
“What we do not know, however, is whether this is a direct causal relationship,” Langbaum told Healthline. “We also do not know whether participating in these activities delay or prevent the onset of cognitive impairment such as dementia or dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease.”
She said the study findings were interesting but noted the data was self-reported, which may not be fully reliable.
A key concept in both normal brain aging and dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease) is that our ability to function is a balance of brain pathology and the brain’s cognitive strength, explained Dr. Gayatri Devi, a neurologist specializing in memory disorders at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
“When the pathology is overwhelming, which happens in aggressive dementias, no amount of brain strength can help slow progression,” she said.
“Thankfully, most kinds of dementia and Alzheimer’s are slowly progressive, and we can shore up our brain’s strength or cognitive reserve to either delay onset of dementia or to prevent it altogether.”
Using crossword puzzles and other mental exercises to strengthen our brain networks is one way to strengthen the brain, as is physical exercise.
“The trick is to keep the brain challenged and engaged as we get older,” Devi said.
You don’t have to be a puzzle fanatic to boost your brain, though, you can also learn a new language or take up a new hobby.
“Regardless of the task, if the problem is challenging enough, all areas of the brain are more or less involved in trying to find a solution — which is good for overall strengthening of the brain’s networks and improving cognitive reserve,” she said.
The bottom line
According to a recent study, the more people over age 50 engage in games such as Sudoku and crosswords, the better their brains function.
However, experts clarified that because the study is correlational, not randomized, it doesn’t mean that playing games causes better cognition.
But experts said challenging your brain either through puzzles or other methods like learning a language can help anyone stay engaged and cognitively sharp.
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