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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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Bogus Brain Health edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of brain health and puzzles.

The physicist Emerson Pugh once said that “if the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

We’re still working hard to unravel the mysteries of how we learn, how we store information, and how puzzle-solving affects the brain in the short term and in the long term. There have been many MANY studies published touting all sorts of results, both positive and negative. And there have been numerous products of a puzzly nature that claim everything from improved memory to staving off Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other debilitating conditions.

As a puzzle guy, I wholeheartedly believe that puzzle-solving has its benefits, and I’m always on the lookout for any new data on the subject to share with you, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers.

As far back as 2013, I was digging through every brain health article I could find, trying to find something substantial about the role of puzzles in brain health. I was hoping for a solid yea or nay, but the scientific community inevitably served up a resounding “maybe?”

Heck, as recently as this past September, I mentioned the conflicting data out there regarding brain health and puzzle-based programs like those on the Lumosity website.

And a recent article on Gizmodo may have put the final nail in the coffin when it comes to all of these lofty brain-health promises.

Citing a paper from Psychological Science in the Public Interest, the article discusses a recent attempt to comb through the numerous previous studies and test them under more rigorous scientific conditions.

The end result? From the Gizmodo article:

“Based on our extensive review of the literature cited by brain-training companies in support of their claims, coupled with our review of related brain-training literatures that are not currently associated with a company or product, there does not yet appear to be sufficient evidence to justify the claim that brain training is an effective tool for enhancing real-world cognition,” conclude the authors in the study.

Not surprisingly, brain-training can improve performance on the particular task or puzzle that’s being trained for. But there was very little evidence to show that these brain-games extend beyond that. These programs simply don’t improve everyday cognitive performance.

While I doubt this will be the last we’ve heard of puzzles as the be-all end-all cure for brain health, it’s good to know that dedicated minds are hard at work exposing the snake oil amidst the real science.


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The Value of Recreational Math

There was a wonderful opinion piece in The New York Times a few weeks ago about the importance of recreational math.

Now, as author Manil Suri said, I’m sure that to some people, the idea of recreational math sounds like an oxymoron. But it’s everywhere! From poker players calculating their odds based on the cards dealt to the number crunching in role-playing games in order to complete certain tasks (or develop a character’s skills), math is built into many recreational activities.

It’s certainly a part of many kinds of puzzles, including brain teasers. Heck, previous brain teasers featured here in the blog like Mystery Number, the Birthday Puzzle, and the jugs of water trap from Die Hard with a Vengeance would all easily fall under the umbrella of recreational math.

The article goes on to mention the wonderful work of Martin Gardner, whose column “Mathematical Games” in Scientific American was a mainstay of recreational math and puzzly whimsy for over twenty-five years.

From Suri’s article:

In his final article for Scientific American, in 1998, Mr. Gardner lamented the “glacial” progress resulting from his efforts to have recreational math introduced into school curriculums “as a way to interest young students in the wonders of mathematics.”

Indeed, a paper this year in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics points out that recreational math can be used to awaken mathematics-related “joy,” “satisfaction,” “excitement” and “curiosity” in students, which the educational policies of several countries (including China, India, Finland, Sweden, England, Singapore and Japan) call for in writing.

In contrast, the Common Core in the United States does not explicitly mention this emotional side of the subject, regarding mathematics only as a tool.

This is an excellent counterpoint to the regular argument that the primary value of puzzle-solving and other activities (like recreational math) is to stave off brain health issues later in life.

In a previous post, we discussed the inconsistent reports about the effects of puzzle-solving on the brain, leaving it unclear if regular doses of puzzles and recreational math are beneficial for other aspects of brain health over time, like memory retention, neuroplasticity, and concentration.

That may well be the case, but Suri’s point stands. The idea of instilling a sense of fun and wonder into the field of math, especially for younger minds? That’s one worth pursuing.

Show them that math can be about more than fulfilling homework or graphing parabola. Show them that mathematical concepts can help you crack a diabolical seesaw brain teaser, save a village with a grain of rice, or find an alternate solution to a PSAT question and prove the testers wrong.

It has been championed in the past by television shows like Square One TV and MythBusters, but sadly, examples like that are few and far between.

And if we can instill recreational math as a key facet of math itself, then we’d be one step closer to ensuring that STEM courses will have plenty of participants in the future.


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Crossing swords with crosswordese!

In the past, I’ve written about crosswordese, nemesis and irritant to many crossword solvers and constructors. For the uninitiated, crosswordese is shorthand for any and all obscure or curious words that you only encounter in crossword grids. From EPEE and OONA to Greek letters (ETA, RHO) and French rivers (AARE), these killer crossings are the bane of any solver’s existence.

And wouldn’t you know it, I encountered some crosswordese in a most unexpected place.

I was reading Patricia Marx’s book Let’s Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain My Mental Faculties, a humorous look at the common fear that our mental acuity declines as we get older. In the book, Marx references numerous ways she’s noted her brain working less efficiently than it used to, and she hilariously chronicles her attempts to combat this and keep her wits sharp.

As part of her ongoing efforts, she even created a crossword grid utilizing only tough crossword entries.

Her puzzle featured some truly great, funny clues, like “The side of the ship you want to be on if you don’t want your hair to get messed up” for ALEE and “No matter how bad your memory is, this is something to remember” for ALAMO.

While I wouldn’t count every entry in her grid as crosswordese, there were plenty of major offenders on her list. (You can check out the full puzzle in her book!)

And this gave me an idea. I would try my hand at creating my own 9×9 grid, composed entirely of crosswordese, utilizing some of the words from her list and some from lists submitted by fellow puzzlers.

[Forgive my nonstandard grid. I tried to go for the same homemade charm as Marx’s grid. Feel free to print out this post and try it out!]

ACROSS

1. Toward shelter, to salty types
3. Arrow poison OR how a child might describe their belly button in writing
5. Flightless bird OR Zeus’s mother
6. Hireling or slave
8. “Kentucky Jones” actor OR response akin to “Duh”
9. Compass dir. OR inhabitant’s suffix
12. Wide-shoe width OR sound of an excited squeal
15. No longer working, for short OR soak flax or hemp
16. Like a feeble old woman OR anagram of a UFO pilot
17. Actress Balin OR Pig ____ poke

DOWN

1. Mean alternate spelling for an eagle’s nest
2. Old-timey exclamation
3. Unnecessarily obscure French river or part of the Rhone-Alpes region
4. Supplement OR misspelling of a popular cat from a FOX Saturday morning cartoon
7. Maui goose
10. An abbreviated adjective covering school K through 12 OR how you might greet a Chicago railway
11. My least favorite example of crosswordese OR good and mad
12. Ornamental needlecase
13. Movie feline OR “Frozen” character
14. Shooting marble OR abbreviation for this missing phrase: “truth, justice, and ____”

Did you conquer this crosswordese-riddled grid? And what’s your least favorite example of crosswordese? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!

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Puzzles and Brain Health

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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