There is a lot of talk nowadays about brain boosting and other attempts to combat the effects of aging on the brain. There are numerous websites and products boasting that they can help keep your wits sharp, your memory keen, and the threat of Alzheimer’s at bay.
From visual acuity and perception to coordination, critical thinking to spatial reasoning, from observational skill to improved memory, there are a lot of promises being made about brain health.
Unfortunately, there’s a wealth of conflicting and inconsistent data out there. (This article by The New York Times points out some of the inconsistencies in brain health reporting when it comes to puzzles.)
From a recent NPR article:
Molly Wagster, chief of the behavioral and systems neuroscience branch at the National Institute on Aging, studies how puzzles can benefit brains. “What we know is that it probably makes us better at puzzle solving, but it may not necessarily make us better at other types of cognitive activities,” Wagster explains.
However, in general, experts agree that puzzle solving is good for us. But what puzzles do the most good, and when should you start solving?
I’ve done my best to comb through the available data — both through reports from news sources and scientific papers themselves — and there’s one thing that they all seem to agree on…
Start puzzling when you’re young.
A study by the University of Chicago said that children who play with jigsaws and other shape-based puzzles at a young age tend to develop better spatial and math-related skills.
And there are other studies that support the idea that a fundamental base of puzzling at a young age contributes to better brain health later in life.
A study at Berkeley published in the Archives of Neurology (and covered by CBS News) found a correlation between crossword puzzle solving (and other challenging mind games) and a decreased likelihood to develop a particular marker for Alzheimer’s disease.
This study also said that when you engage in these activities is a factor. Like the University of Chicago study, the Berkeley study states that adults who engaged in crosswords and similarly brain-stimulating activities in their early and middle years had the lowest amount of these markers.
There is plenty of data to suggest that crosswords and other associative puzzles can have unexpected brain health benefits.
My friend Jake had major brain surgery years ago, and part of his post-surgery recovery consisted of solving crosswords. It was considered excellent speech/occupational therapy, and he sought out more crosswords post-recovery.
(This article from The New York Times discusses in detail another example of the curious relationship between crosswords, memory, and post-surgery treatment.)
But what about those who’ve come to puzzles later in life? Are all the promises made by those websites and brain-boosting products possible?
It depends on the puzzle. There are plenty of puzzles that are great at exercising various brain functions and observational skill, but there’s precious little scientific data to back up whether these games and puzzles actually help with memory retention or other faculties challenged by age.
But a recent article by Dr. Rob Winningham suggests that certain types of puzzle solving are more beneficial than others.
Crossword puzzles involve getting a cue and then attempting to retrieve previously learned information, which is something that people with age related cognitive impairment and even early to mid stage dementia can do fairly well.
Age related changes in cognition and earlier stages of dementia are primarily associated with impairments in the ability to concentrate, pay attention, and make new memories; crossword puzzles don’t really exercise those abilities, but Sudoku puzzles do.
According to Dr. Winningham, the heavy demand Sudoku puzzles place on concentration and active attention-keeping — especially when solved with distractions like television or conversation in the mix — exercise those parts of the brain associated with the formation of new memories, encouraging better memory retention and other mental faculties so many solvers of all ages want to keep in top condition.
While there’s still more research to be done to narrow down exactly what puzzles are best for your brain in the long term, there’s no denying that puzzle solving is always a healthy decision.
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