JUL 25, 2017 7:06 AM PDT

Keeping the Brain in Shape With Crossword Puzzles

Crossword puzzles are a good way to pass the time and people who enjoy them are often wordsmiths who read a lot and have large vocabularies. However, they might be more than just a way for brainiacs and literary types to unwind. New research has shown that those who regularly solve these wordy puzzles stay younger, regarding brain age, than those who do not.

Researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School and Kings College London analyzed data from more than 17,000 healthy people who are over the age of 50 concerning their use of crossword and other word puzzles and presented their research to the Alzheimer's Association International Conference 2017 held recently in London. Their study, which used CogTrack and PROTECT online cognitive testing found that participants who routinely spent time on word puzzles, especially crosswords, performed better, even later in life, on tests that measured problem-solving, reasoning, attentional focus, and memory.

When tabulating the results, the general outcome was that brain function in crossword fans was up to ten years younger than those who did not spend time on the puzzles. Specifically, areas like grammar, problem-solving and short-term memory were all improved in those who reported solving crosswords on a regular basis.

Keith Wesnes, who is a professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Exeter Medical School and was involved in the work explained, "We found direct relationships between the frequency of word puzzle use and the speed and accuracy of performance on nine cognitive tasks assessing a range of aspects of function including attention, reasoning, and memory. Performance was consistently better in those who reported engaging in puzzles, and generally improved incrementally with the frequency of puzzle use. For example, on test measures of grammatical reasoning speed and short-term memory accuracy, performing word puzzles was associated with an age-related reduction of around 10 years. We now need to follow up this very exciting association in a clinical trial, to establish whether engaging in puzzles results in improvement in brain function."

The PROTECT online platform is maintained by the University of Exeter and Kings College London. Over 22,000 healthy people aged between 50 and 96 are registered in the study, and they hope to expand to even more volunteers. Researchers can use the data and the platform for large scale studies, without requiring study participants come to the lab. PROTECT is slated to last ten years and anyone who takes part will also be included in follow ups. It's funded by the Alzheimer's Society and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Bioresource, and the NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN).

Clive Ballard who is a Professor of Age-Related Diseases at the University of Exeter Medical School talked about the parts of dementia that might be overcome with cognitive practice like puzzles and said, "We know that many of the factors involved in dementia are preventable. It is essential that we find out what lifestyle factors really make a difference to helping people maintain healthy brains to stop the soaring rise of the disease. We can't yet say that crosswords give you a sharper brain – the next step is to assess whether encouraging people to start playing word games regularly could actually improve their brain function." While the team stressed that this one project cannot be used as evidence to say for sure that crosswords can stave off dementia, it's an important factor in determining the path of ongoing research into the causes of dementia since it's fast becoming a public health crisis. The video below has more information, but in the meantime, what's a ten-letter word that's key to any research into memory loss and cognitive decline? P-R-E-V-E-N-T-I-O-N. Check out the video to learn more.

Sources: University of Exeter, The Lab World, AAIC

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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