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Crosswords and word puzzles help your brain stay sharp

Crosswords and word puzzles help your brain stay sharp as you age, a new online study says. But in order for them to be effective, crosswords should be done regularly. 

The more regularly you do word puzzles such as crosswords, the higher the chances that your brain will stay sharp, even with old age.

Experts at the University of Exeter Medical School and Kings College London analysed data from more than 17,000 healthy people aged 50 and over, submitted in an online trial. The study, one of the largest of its kind, used tests from the CogTrackTM and PROTECT online cognitive test systems to assess core aspects of brain function.

What they found was that the more regularly participants did word puzzles, the better they performed on tasks assessing attention, reasoning and memory.

And analyzing the data, the scientists found that people that regularly did crosswords had brain function similar to that of people ten years younger, on tests of grammatical reasoning speed and short term memory accuracy.

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

The test was done in order to identify which lifestyle factor could delay and even prevent age related dementia.

“We know that many of the factors involved in dementia are preventable”, said Clive Ballard, Professor of Age-Related Diseases at the University of Exeter Medical School. “It is essential that we find out what lifestyle factors really make a difference to helping people maintain healthy brains to stop the soaring rise of the disease. We can’t yet say that crosswords give you a sharper brain – the next step is to assess whether encouraging people to start playing word games regularly could actually improve their brain function.”

And according to scientists, the best thing to do in order to avoid losing our brain’s youth is to keep it active and engaged. The study has its limitations as the scientists cannot pinpoint exactly if “puzzling” is what makes brain activity better. For that, the next crucial step is to test people that take up word puzzles, doctors argue.

“We know that keeping an active mind can help to reduce decline in thinking skills”, said Dr Doug Brown, Director of Research of Alzheimer’s Society. “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. 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.”

Until scientists get enough scientific evidence on what exactly keeps the brain young, medical specialists are advising people to keep physically active, avoiding smoking and eat a healthy and balanced diet.

Sylvia Jacob