Puzzles and Brain Health: Finally Some Definitive Data?

For years now, brain health and puzzle-solving have been intertwined topics.

There have been many, MANY published studies touting all sorts of effects, both positive and negative, of solving puzzles. Alongside those studies, there have been numerous products of a puzzly nature that claim to do everything from improving memory to staving off Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other debilitating conditions.

I’ve been reading articles on the subject for more than six years now, and the results, for the most part, have been inconclusive. This is often due to small sample sizes for the experimental data, or evidence that leads to likelihoods rather than verifiable, repeatable, reliable data.

Across all of these articles, there are essentially three suppositions:

  • A. Solving puzzles helps maintain or improve brain function
  • B. Specific “brain-training” exercises, programs, or products help maintain or improve brain function more so than traditional/unfocused puzzle solving
  • C. Solving puzzles (whether traditional or “brain-training”) helps stave off conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and memory loss later in life

When it comes to Supposition B, I’ve yet to see anything that proves a “brain-training” or “brain-boosting” puzzle regimen actually helps in a meaningful way. In fact, at one point, one of these “brain-training” companies had to pay a two-million-dollar fine for making promises that their program couldn’t verifiably deliver on.

[Image courtesy of SharpBrains.com.]

But let’s leave that nonsense aside for a moment and focus on Supposition A, the idea that solving puzzles is good for the brain.

For the first time, we have a study performed by a reputable organization with a sample size large enough that it may finally allow us to draw some decent conclusions. Two articles published this month in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry have concluded that adults age 50 and older who regularly solve puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku have better brain function than those who do not.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Exeter, involved a test group of more than 19,000 participants.

From an article on Science Daily discussing the study:

Researchers asked participants in the PROTECT study . . . to report how frequently they engage in word and number puzzles and undertake a series of cognitive tests sensitive to measuring changes in brain function. They found that the more regularly participants engaged with the puzzles, the better they performed on tasks assessing attention, reasoning and memory.

From their results, researchers calculate that people who engage in word puzzles have brain function equivalent to ten years younger than their age, on tests assessing grammatical reasoning, and eight years younger than their age on tests measuring short term memory.

Yes, this is only one study, and yes, obviously more testing and sampling is needed to apply this to the millions upon millions of folks age 50 and older who might benefit from this. But it’s worth giving this topic deep consideration. A sample size of 19,000 is impressive, and there’s no profit or “brain-training” scam behind the study.

And, regarding Supposition C, while this study didn’t offer anything definitive, it remains a possibility. Dr. Anne Corbett of the University of Exeter Medical School said, “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.”

How much longer, who can say? But, when it comes to better brain health, it seems we can finally say that puzzles are good for you. (I always suspected.)


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