Puzzle Your Way to a Better Brain

New research links crosswords and other mentally challenging puzzles and games with larger brain size and better cognition.

Crossword puzzles may wear down your pencil point, but they also build up your brain, new research suggests.

A study involving healthy older adults who were at greater-than-normal risk for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) suggests that individuals who regularly enjoy crosswords and other types of puzzles or play checkers, cards, or other games may experience significant brain benefits.

“This research is encouraging, in that it suggests that staying intellectually engaged and active is good for your brain, and may help stave off AD,” says Janet Sherman, PhD, Chief Neuropsychologist and Clinical Director of the Psychology Assessment Center at MGH. “Mentally challenging games and puzzles may provide benefit by adding to an individual’s cognitive reserve, thereby helping to fortify the brain against damage associated with aging and disease and slow the process of cognitive decline. These activities may also involve social interaction with other players—also a great source of mental stimulation.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Try these suggestions for brain-stimulating puzzles and games that are both fun and challenging:

  • Problems and puzzles. Challenge your brain with crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, brainteasers, word searches, and math problems. Buy puzzle books, or work out at web sites such as www.syvum.com/teasers; www.braingle.com; or www.billsgames.com/brain-teasers/.
  • Games. Play alone, or play with friends for social as well as mental stimulation. Enjoy Scrabble, chess, bridge, poker, Trivial Pursuit, charades, solitaire, or concentration. Play along with TV quiz shows. Get your mental exercise from computer games: Try playing chess or checkers against the computer, or check out the Internet sites http://brainworkshop.sourceforge.net/ and http://www.sporcle.com/ for challenging games that have been linked to improvements in brain functioning.
  • Make up your own games. For example, challenge yourself to memorize your shopping list, see if you can beat your grandchild at naming the state capitals, think of 10 multisyllabic words and see if you can spell them correctly, or try to recall what your friends wore at last night’s party.

The researchers administered brain scans and cognitive tests to 329 participants with a family history of AD and asked them how frequently they engaged in various mentally stimulating activities, according to a paper presented at the International Alzheimer’s Association Conference in July 2014. Results showed that participants who reported that they frequently played games or did puzzles were more likely than were those who engaged less frequently in these activities to earn higher scores on tests of memory, learning, and information processing. The puzzle and game enthusiasts were also more likely to have greater brain volume in areas associated with memory (thought to be an indication of increased resistance to brain damage and decline).

“The study does not prove cause and effect, but merely an association between puzzles and games and greater mental acuity,” cautions Dr. Sherman. “It’s possible that sharper individuals may be more likely to engage in brain-stimulating activities, such as games and puzzles, in the first place. Still, at MGH we routinely recommend that our older patients help preserve their mental skills by engaging in intellectually demanding activities that they enjoy, and puzzles and games would be a good option in this regard.”

Brain benefits

Tackling puzzles and challenging games helps keep the brain youthful by providing the opportunity to exercise a number of basic mental skills. These skills include perception, problem-solving, logic, mental math, verbal dexterity, long- and short-term memory, and visuospatial abilities. Playing games and working with puzzles helps boost the ability to think quickly and creatively, to look at things in novel ways, to test hypotheses, and to combine various mental skills in pursuit of solutions.

Physically, these mental workouts are thought to enhance blood and oxygen flow to the brain, promote cell growth, foster stronger connections between neurons, and make the brain more efficient, healthier, and nimble. Some research suggests that keeping brain cells active helps them live longer and resist traumas caused by drugs, stroke, or disease. A small study published in the Archives of Neurology in 2011 found that the more often a group of healthy adults in their 70s engaged in mentally demanding activities such as playing games, the lower was the buildup in their brains of a hallmark of AD, the toxic brain protein beta-amyloid.

“To keep your mind flexible and alert and your memory intact, you have to make yourself think, so for maximum benefit choose puzzles and games that require mental effort on your part, but are not discouragingly difficult,” suggests Dr. Sherman. “Scoring a victory in a game or solving a demanding brainteaser should provide pleasure, build confidence, impart a sense of achievement, and improve your mood. These activities should be challenging, interesting, and fun.”

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