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Crossword Puzzles Are Good For the Brain

One of the fears about aging is the possibility of developing dementia. Even in healthy older adults it is normal for the brain to slowly shrink with increasing age, and thinking processes can deteriorate. A recent study lasting 78 weeks offers hope to persons already diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

In older adults with MCI, there is an increased risk it can progress to dementia, especially Alzheimer's disease. Studies are finding that doing complex mental activities that stimulate the brain may decrease the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

In this study, researchers found that doing crossword puzzles was better than doing computer games in improving memory loss and thinking processes, and slowing the progression of decline in persons already diagnosed with MCI. The crossword puzzle group also showed less decline in daily activities, and MRIs showed fewer decreases in brain size (hippocampal volume and cortical thickness).

Persons (average age 71.2 years) were randomized to either of the groups, and they did the online games or crossword puzzles (provided by Lumos Labs) at home. Total time spent each day: 30 minutes four times per week.

Are online crossword puzzles better than computer games for persons without any cognitive impairment?  This is where it gets interesting - the answer is no. One study found that computer games were better in a group of 18 to 80 year olds, even though doing either results in improvement.

By the way, numerous "brain training" claims by a computer mind games company such as Lumos Labs were viewed as deceptive by the FTC ($2 million fine back in 2016 for all sorts of unsupported claims).

What to do for brain health? The reality is that activities that stimulate the mind (reading, art, computer games), getting vaccines in adulthood, and exercise/physical activity are all good for the brain. And of course, eating well (especially more fruits, berries, nuts, and eggs) and getting enough sleep. Avoid anticholinergic medicines and smoking.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) can even improve on its own without any special treatments - even in adults 65 years or older.

From Medical Xpress: Crossword puzzles beat computer video games in slowing memory loss

A new study by researchers from Columbia University and Duke University published in the journal NEJM Evidence shows that doing crossword puzzles has an advantage over computer video games for memory functioning in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.

In a randomized, controlled trial, led by D.P. Devanand, MD, professor of psychiatry and neurology at Columbia, with Murali Doraiswamy, MD, professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke, researchers determined that participants (average age 71) trained in doing web-based crossword puzzles demonstrated greater cognitive improvement than those who were trained on cognitive video games.

To conduct their study, researchers at Columbia and Duke randomly assigned 107 participants with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) at the two different sites to either crossword puzzles training or cognitive games training with intensive training for 12 weeks followed by booster sessions up to 78 weeks. Both interventions were delivered via a computerized platform with weekly compliance monitoring.

The most striking findings of the trial were:

    • Crossword puzzles were superior to cognitive games on the primary cognitive outcome measure, ADAS-Cog, at both 12 weeks and 78 weeks. Crossword puzzles were superior on FAQ, a measure of daily functioning, at 78 weeks.
    • Crossword puzzles were superior for participants at a later disease stage but both forms of training were equally effective in an earlier stage.
    • Brain shrinkage (measured with MRI) was less for crossword puzzles at 78 weeks.

"The benefits were seen not only in cognition but also in daily activities with indications of brain shrinkage on MRI that suggests that the effects are clinically meaningful," Dr. Devanand said.

The study also highlights the importance of engagement. Based on remote electronic monitoring of computer use, participants at a later stage of impairment may have better engaged with the more familiar crossword puzzles than with computerized cognitive games.

Two strengths of the trial are the 28% participation rate of individuals from racial and ethnic minority groups and the low drop-out rate (15%) for such a lengthy home-based trial. A study limitation was the absence of a control group that did not receive cognitive training.

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