They say word puzzles help keep the brain active in our later years, but researchers at the University College London and Kings College London have found compelling evidence that our daily crossword may have more benefits than previously thought.

Cognitive tests

In one of the largest of its kind, researchers put together a study to test the various effects word puzzles, such as crosswords, have on the brain.

Using advancement monitoring systems such as CogTrackTM and PROTECT, over 17,000 people over the age of 50 without dementia were trialled to note any effects.

Researchers found that the participants who participated in word puzzles on a frequent basis were found to perform much better when given attention, reasoning and memory tests. Those who did not participate in word puzzles often, or not at all, were found to have significantly worse test results.

10 years younger

The study also found that in the specific areas of grammatical reasoning, speed and short-term memory accuracy, those who participated in word puzzles regularly displayed brain function that was typically found in brains ten years younger.

“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,” said Keith Wesnes, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Exeter Medical School.

“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,” he explained.

The findings were presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) 2017 in London.

Further research

Yet while promising in that it may help slow the demand for care services such as dementia day care, the next step for the researchers say is to conduct a clinical trial to solidify their findings.

“This new research does reveal a link between word puzzles, like crosswords, and memory and thinking skills, but we can’t say definitively that regular ‘puzzling’ improves these skills,” said Director of Research of Alzheimer’s Society, Dr. Doug Brown.

“To be able to say for sure, the crucial next step is to test if there are benefits in people who take up word puzzles,” he continued.

Previous findings

This is not the first study to look into whether word puzzles have a positive effect on the brain. Back in 2007, a study conducted over in New York looked at a number of elderly residents living in care.

The study found that of the 15% who regularly took part in crosswords, symptoms relating to mental decline were delayed on average for two years.

However, the study was only conducted on a small number of people, so much like the University College London and Kings College London trial, more still needs to be done to provide concrete evidence that word puzzles do actually have a positive effect on the brain.