Arthur Wynne created the first crossword puzzle in 1913. It was published in the Sunday edition of the New York World and called a “Word-Cross” puzzle. It was only due to a typesetting error that it was later changed to “Cross-Word”. Wynne would no doubt be amazed that crosswords became so popular that they have contributed to the sale of newspapers, magazines, etc for decades. Today we can solve crosswords online and computers are often used to generate them. Besides those who do crosswords for pure entertainment, many people believe that doing them helps to keep their brains young.
Why are they addictive?
I never believed in the addictive aspect of crossword puzzles until I began doing them myself. I’ve heard it described as a series of Aha moments, followed by an ultimate Aha when you insert that final word. I love the way doing a puzzle absorbs me to the extent that I am completely removed from the stresses of my day. While I find them relaxing, I wouldn’t describe myself as addicted although I have expended quite a bit of time and mental effort on them over the years. I know others who carry their puzzle books with them wherever they go and always have to have a puzzle to complete.
I think that much of the fascination with solving crossword puzzles comes from detecting patterns and making meaning from them. As Tyler Hinman, five times champion of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament says “It’s said that the people who are the best at these are musicians or people who are in math and science. What those fields have in common is they’re both about looking at encoded information and being able to translate it instantly into something meaningful.”
If crossword puzzles are as good for your brain as some people believe, constantly doing them should help you to avoid some of the brain afflictions that come with age. But do they do this?
The effect of crosswords on the brain
There are different opinions as to the effect of crossword puzzles on the brain. The results of research over the years have been mixed.
Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD and cognitive neuroscientist says: “But with all the buzz about brain games—such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and even brain training websites—it begs the question: Can brain games be beneficial to brain health? ….. While the games are fun and engaging, there is insufficient scientific evidence to suggest brain training as it exists now can significantly improve an individual’s higher-order cognitive ability.”
In other words, although you may become very good at doing crossword puzzles if you do them all the time, this does not mean that other critical brain functions such as decision-making are improved.
Professor Dean Olsher, author of From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords thinks that part of the appeal of crossword puzzles is the familiarity they breed. The same kind of activity is repeated over and over again. This is why he does not believe they can stave of Alzheimer’s. He says ” But the Alzheimer’s research shows that really what matters is novelty … constantly exposing yourself to something new. That is much more likely, I think, to keep you sharp in the long run.”
Promising research results
Some research through the years has addressed the impact of mental exercise, such as doing crosswords, on the prevention of cognitive decline. Many of these studies involved a relatively small number of participants and although there were some positive results, they were largely inconclusive.
- The findings of a 2011 study were that late life crossword puzzle participation was associated with delayed onset of memory decline in persons who developed dementia. Of the 101 people who were were diagnosed with dementia during the course of the study, the ones who did crossword puzzles delayed onset of accelerated memory decline by 2.54 years.
- In 2013 researchers reviewed 32 randomized controlled trials, in which patients were randomly assigned to either an intervention such as drugs to control cognitive decline, herbal remedies, physical activity or mental exercises including crossword puzzles; or left to continue living their lives without any changes. They found the results inconclusive but that there was evidence that mental exercises were more effective than some of the prescribed drugs.
- In 2017 the results of one of the largest studies were published. A team at University of Exeter Medical School and Kings College London analyzed data from more than 17,000 healthy people aged 50 and over. They asked participants how often they played word puzzles such as crosswords. Core aspects of brain function were assessed and they found that the more regularly participants engaged with word puzzles, the better they performed on tasks assessing attention, reasoning and memory. They found that people who engage in word puzzles have brain function equivalent to 10 years younger than their age, on tests of grammatical reasoning speed and short-term memory accuracy. Those who did puzzles were quicker and more accurate in nine cognitive tasks that assessed a range of aspects of function including attention, reasoning and memory. Professor Keith Wesnes, from the University of Exeter, said “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.”
Make your daily puzzle more challenging
Think about trying to make your daily puzzle more challenging. You can give yourself a time limit and see how quickly you can do it. You can try a puzzle that’s more difficult. If you find you’re speeding through your puzzle without any difficulty, you’re probably not doing much for your brain. You’re not engaging your whole brain if you don’t have enough variety and challenge. If you find it more and more difficult to do your crossword, this is a sign that it’s time to have your memory tested. Perhaps you could also trying to do different types of puzzles. I am not a numbers person so I don’t enjoy Sudoko – but I should probably give one a try as it would challenge me more than just doing crosswords. New challenges testing a variety of skills are best for your brain.
Two of the bestseller puzzle books on Amazon are:
By 2030 the US population over 65 will double to more than 70 million. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if non-pharmalogical interventions such as doing crossword puzzles could delay the onset of dementia?
Recent research into Alzheimer’s Disease has given hope due to the discovery of genes specifically related to Alzheimer’s. Future genetic research can be more directed and already various new drugs are poised to hit the market within the next five years. This is good news, considering that many of the current drugs are not that effective.
However, the fact that crosswords are widely available, easily accessible and cost is minimal means that even if there is the remotest possibility that they can help reduce cognitive decline, it’s worth more research. I, for one, will continue to happily enjoy my crosswords, and hope that my brain will thank me too.