I didn’t start doing crossword puzzles because I thought they would provide long-lasting benefits for my brain. They were simply fun to do, especially on the train during my daily commute to work. Completing a puzzle as I rolled into Grand Central Station set a positive tone for me. No matter what happened that day, at least I had one success under my belt.

Recently I learned that filling in those “Across” and “Down” boxes is more than just a pleasant diversion. My hobby—along with jigsaw puzzles, Tetris, and other games I also enjoy—can help make our brains sharper and possibly less susceptible to dementia in our later years.

Activities that stimulate the brain may affect the anatomy of the brain, as revealed by brain scans. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, made an interesting discovery while investigating adults 60 years of age and older who still had normal brain function. They reported that deposits of beta-amyloid—a destructive protein found in the brain that is associated with the progression of Alzheimer’s disease—were lower in those who had engaged in more brain-stimulating activities over their lifetimes. Activities measured included playing games, reading books and newspapers, and writing letters and email. According to Dr. Susan Landau, one of the investigators, any type of game that stimulates the brain may have contributed to the positive effect—including crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and even video games.

While this study did not isolate the effects of particular games on progression to dementia, other researchers have found evidence that specific diversions may offer cognitive benefit—for both younger and older people.

Crosswords May Help Protect Against Forgetfulness

Can a Puzzle a Day Keep Dementia Away?Doing crossword puzzles alone may help slow memory decline. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, studied 488 community residents between 75 and 85 years of age, 101 of whom later developed dementia. Based on a scientifically accepted measure (Buschke Selective Reminding Test), memory decline in those with dementia occurred about two and a half years later in those who did crossword puzzles on a regular basis compared to those who didn’t. This cognitive benefit appeared independent of the level of education of the study participants, and even among those who had started doing crossword puzzles later in life.

Can Visual Games Be a “Cognitive Vaccine” for PTSD?

The addictive game Tetris (a video game in which tiles of different shapes are manipulated to fit into a pattern) may be more than just a guilty indulgence; it may also have therapeutic value. In one study conducted at Oxford University, 60 volunteers were shown a traumatic film and divided into three groups. Thirty minutes later, the groups played Tetris, the Pub Quiz (a trivia test), or no game. The Tetris players had significantly fewer flashbacks of the traumatic scenes over the next week, based on diary observations, than did the other two groups, with the Pub Quiz group reporting the greatest number of flashbacks. The ability to recall the traumatic scenes when asked to, however, was similar across subjects in the study.

It has been theorized that tasks involving visual and spatial recognition interfere with converting short-term memories into long-term ones (memory consolidation). Tasks involving language, however, may interfere with the viewers’ processing of the traumatic images, which can leave the viewer more vulnerable to unwanted flashbacks.

Can Tetris Bulk Up the Teen Brain?

The Mind Research Network—a nonprofit organization that studies brain injury and mental illness—has found that playing Tetris may benefit the brains of teenaged girls. (Boys were not included in the investigation because they tend to spend a lot of time playing video games, which would have skewed the results.) Over the three-month study, 26 adolescent girls who played the game for 30 minutes a day developed a thicker cerebral cortex as well as improved the capacity of other parts of the thinking brain. This finding may have important implications, since thinning of the cortex is associated with severity of dementia.

Since this study and the flashback study involved a relatively few number of subjects, they are hardly conclusive. Ongoing research may eventually tell us more.

Jigsaw Puzzles: The Right Pieces for Brain Training

Along with trimming the tree and decorating the house, my daughter and I look forward to another ritual every Christmas vacation: putting together a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. I limit myself to one of these projects a year, because I find it difficult to stop working on it until the picture is complete. But it’s good to know that my obsession is at least good for my head.

Can a Puzzle a Day Keep Dementia Away?Jigsaw puzzles are beneficial to the brain in a number of ways. They require us to recognize shapes and colors, which enhances short-term memory. Simple puzzles help toddlers and preschool children improve eye-hand coordination. As children get older, more difficult puzzles can help enhance pattern recognition. Rotating pieces in space to determine how they fit can improve abstract thinking skills.

In addition, these multifaceted brain trainers help promote connections between the left, or logical, side of the brain and the more creative, intuitive right side. Scientists have also found that accurate placement of a piece can trigger release of dopamine, a key neurotransmitter for regulating mood, concentration, and motivation. I can vouch for the satisfaction of making order out of chaos and seeing a scene unfold before your eyes. Another plus: There’s basically no way to make a mistake. It may be a slow process at times, but pieces can’t be placed in spaces where they don’t fit.

Advances in brain scanning and mapping in the years to come will surely tell us more about how cognition is affected by crosswords, jigsaws, and other brain conditioners. In the meantime, my daughter and I aren’t taking any chances; we’re already scouting out this year’s choices for our annual puzzle.

3 Important Considerations About Brain-Training Diversions

Can a Puzzle a Day Keep Dementia Away?1. Make sure it’s challenging. Just as no runner ever made it to the Olympics by jogging at a slow pace around a track every day, our brains can’t advance their skills if we don’t place demands on them. Puzzles and games that push your gray matter beyond its current skill level will increase the likelihood of cognitive benefits.

2. Do it often. Establishing beneficial changes in neural connections in the brain typically requires repetition of brain-stimulating activities.

3. Engage in different brain-stimulating activities. Studies have shown that people who engage in more types of activities get more brain boosting.

Let the Games Begin!

In addition to crossword puzzles in many daily newspapers, there are many opportunities online to give your brain a healthy workout. Here are just a few:

  • Lumosity allows you to tailor your brain training by using a variety of games and tips
  • Miller Analogies Test promotes thinking “out of the box” with wide-ranging multiple choice analogies
  • Sudoku
  • Tetris

Find Out More

Read about Ed Decker.


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