Column: Can crossword puzzles and word games boost memory?

It is a daily ritual for millions of people. You wake up, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and eventually make your way to one or more crossword puzzles, word games, and other brain twisters.

Proving banking knowledge and problem solving skills can boost your ego, or deflate it. But anyway, brush off the cobwebs, right? It’s the “use it or lose it” theory in action, and as I get older, I’d like to believe that these mental exercises can help keep my mind strong and maybe even stave off memory loss, even though my wife he usually beats me. all these games.

But is there a science behind it, or is it wishful thinking?

I am trying to solve the riddle, because since the launch of the Golden State column two months ago, I have heard from many readers who – like me – put at least some faith in the value of mental gymnastics.

“To keep my brain functioning,” wrote Jairo Angulo, 73, of West LA, “I play Wordle, complete the Jumble, do Sudoku, KenKen and crossword puzzles every day.”

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Jose Galvan, 77, said he thinks his daily routine of a crossword puzzle, Wordle and “one or more Sudoku grids” keeps him “mentally nimble.”

I’m not out to crush the spirits of Angulo, Galvan or anyone else who works every day at the kitchen table, pencil or digital device in hand, but cracking Sudoku or reaching genius level in Spelling Bee might not be as beneficial as you could be. he thinks

“Doing puzzles, in itself, just improves how you do puzzles,” said Dr. Beau Ances, a University of Washington professor who specializes in neurodegenerative diseases. “I’m not sure it improves long-term cognition.”

Ances said he has patients who love puzzles and he absolutely encourages them to keep them; having a daily ritual that you look forward to is beneficial in many ways. Galvan, for example, told me that it’s good for his self-esteem when he conquers a puzzle.

The word yowza in the new edition of Merriam Webster's "Official Scrabble Players Dictionary."

The word yowza in Merriam Webster’s “Official Scrabble Players Dictionary”. To the surprise of some, scientists say that there is no strong evidence to support a connection between word games and brain health.

(Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Another benefit, Ances said, is that, because some crosswords become more difficult as the week goes by, it is useful for a doctor to know that you used to get to the end of the week, but now you lose your way from on Wednesday or Thursday.

But don’t count on warding off senility.

Debra Cherry, clinical psychologist and executive vice president of Alzheimer’s Los Angeles, said there is no strong evidence to support the widespread belief in the value of word games and other brain-enhancing products. In fact, she the agency’s website offer a warning:

“There is a lot of information available on the Internet on the topic of keeping your brain healthy, but it is important to understand that there is currently no proven way to absolutely prevent Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Beware of anyone who promises to do this”.

Not that there is no hope of discovery, said Cherry, and she highly recommends intellectual stimulation as a component of a healthy life. But when it comes to activities that could improve acuity, he said, “the strongest evidence is for aerobic exercise.”

In fact, exercise, a heart-healthy diet, social engagement, good sleep habits and overall physical health were cited by half a dozen specialists I interviewed as keys to acuity. mental

“Everybody wants to say, ‘Oh, if I do the crossword puzzle, or oh, if I eat blueberries,'” said UC Irvine neuroscientist Dr. Claudia Kawas, who started a long term study of Laguna Woods residents 90 and older. But “a healthy lifestyle involves physical and cognitive activities, period.”

Dr. Scott Grafton, a UC Santa Barbara neuroscientist and author of “Physical intelligence,” he says that humans did not evolve to sit around playing word games. Going back 75,000 years, he said, they had to solve tough physical and social challenges to survive. Because of where we come from, a brisk walk out of the woods is better for us than a walk in a park, Grafton said, and “cognitive challenge in the past drives brain health in a profound way.”

Hands rest on a newspaper page showing crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

The Lancet Commission identified 12 risk factors for dementia, including excessive alcohol consumption, smoking and infrequent social contact. So avoiding these things, as much as possible, could be more useful than mastering Sudoku.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Dr. Lon Schneider, a professor at the USC Keck School of Medicine who serves on the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, once told me that if I sometimes forget where I left off and my key, there is no cause for concern, unless you find them in the refrigerator. When I asked him about cognitive maintenance, he sent me a Lancet report which identified 12 risk factors for dementia.

The 12 are excessive alcohol consumption, head injuries, exposure to air pollution, lack of education, hypertension, hearing impairment, smoking, obesity, depression, physical inactivity, diabetes and little social contact frequent

So avoiding these things, as much as possible, could be more useful than mastering Sudoku.

But as we all know, medical science has a long history of changing its mind about what is good or bad for us, and there is no more mysterious organ in the body than the brain.

And even if the experts don’t fully understand, those I spoke to said that learning new things—like music and language—could be helpful.

That’s why I was particularly interested in an email from Michael Suttle, a Dana Point resident who shared a success story.

In 2010, when he was in his late 50s, Suttle, a software salesman, ocean swimmer and trumpet player, found himself forgetting phone numbers and appointments. It got so bad that he started writing down his daily schedule so he wouldn’t miss meetings.

About four years later, he said, “I noticed a noticeable improvement in short-term memory and I wondered why.”

Improvement occurred as Suttle rededicated himself to music, practiced hard and earned a spot in the newly formed Dana Point Symphony Orchestra. He also joined the Irvine Symphony, and being a concertmaster required him to learn difficult new music, including Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth symphonies, and Mahler’s Third, Fourth and Fifth.

Two men, dressed in tuxedos and ties, play the trumpet.

Michael Suttle, left, plays with Symphony Irvine and thinks the music has improved his memory.

(Edie Van Huss)

“Plus, the art of performing these on stage in front of a packed house takes a ton of concentration,” said Suttle, who found he no longer needed to write out his daily schedule.

I would selfishly like to think that it was music that changed things for Suttle, because I put in the time on my guitar and learning Spanish. But without large studies over long stretches, it’s hard to come to strong conclusions about any of this. It could be that for Suttle, having a specific goal and the new social networks were as useful for him as playing music.

Daniel Levitin, a musician and neuroscientist who pooh-poohs the benefits of word games in his book “Successful Aging,” told me it’s a little easier to make a case for music. When I spoke to Suttle, Levitin—who also wrote “This Is Your Brain on Music”—said that decoding music he’d never played before was likely key, challenging the he knows how to process complex signals from his brain.

“There is some possibility that physical and mental tasks in tandem are beneficial,” Levitin said. “You can’t make a musical sound without moving something,” and this forces the brain in ways that create “new layers of connections.” You won’t “eliminate Alzheimer’s,” Levitin said, but you can “eliminate the noticeable effects of it.”

Another argument for the benefits of music comes from a small short-term memory study that tested adults between 60 and 80. Theodore Zantus, director of UC San Francisco’s Neuroscience Division Neuroscape, told me that 20 participants played a word search game for 20 minutes each day on a tablet, and 20 more played a game that asked them to remember and repeat a musical rhythm.

Participants took a digital facial recognition test before and after, assessing their short-term memory skills. After eight weeks of games, the word search group showed no improvement, but the music group showed a 4% improvement.

“It’s not a huge change,” Zanto said, but he suggests “maybe you can get a little bit of an edge” through music.

Or through other activities that challenge the mind or muscle.

“We push kids to learn things all the time, but we don’t push each other,” Kawas said. “I don’t think it’s about any particular activity, but the more the brain is challenged, probably the better it is.”

So if you have a favorite puzzle, keep playing. But when you get good enough, you step up to the next challenge, and it’s never too late to learn a new tool or language.

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