Solving The Problem

Puzzles and word games can help with memory

By Jennifer Colosimo

Did you know your idle time spent finishing this week’s crossword puzzle may have been worth the ignored piles of dirty dishes? In fact, it may be a bigger priority than any housework chores, especially since it may be what keeps you cognizant later in life. It’s often been rumored that scratching your way through a crossword puzzle is perhaps more than fun, but a recent study found that the more regularly participants engaged with word puzzles, the better they performed on tasks assessing attention, reasoning and memory.

Based on those same results, researchers calculate that people who engage in word puzzles have brain function equivalent to ten years younger than their age — and in a world that is moving faster and faster, getting really good at puzzles may be what keeps us competitive in the game of life. This theory and several others are a hot button item in the clinical trial world, so we broached the topic with a few local neurologists to learn how we can use it to take control of our aging process, starting at the top.

Knowing Normalcy
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. By 2050, this number is expected to rise to 14 million. Those figures are shadowed only by how much the disease is costing the country — in healthcare costs, and in lives. For this reason, the conversation about brain health and how to prevent dementia diseases like Alzheimer’s is one more and more people should be having. “Changes in brain volume are also associated with aging and begin after age 50, with a 2 or 3 percent progressive decrease per decade,” said Robert E. Ayer, MD, a neurosurgeon affiliated with Gwinnett Medical Center. “This represents some degree of apoptosis, or cell death, in the brain that is part of the natural aging process.”

“Reasoning and spacial visualization, and processing speed decline slowly, starting in young adulthood (20s),” added Jim Robinson, M.D., a neurosurgeon associated with Northside Hospital and founder of “Measures like vocabulary and general information knowledge scores increase on average until about age 60. It is generally around age 60 that people start to notice a change. “Some cognitive change over time is normal, but is often compensated by experience and learning,” he added. “Cognitive decline will accelerate however with excessive alcohol intake, illicit drugs, and poor ‘brain hygiene’ or mental laziness, so to speak.”

According to Ayer, it’s not normal “when there are mental status changes out of proportion to the normal aging process.” He added, “I find that family and close friends are the first to bring it to the patients’ attention. Occasionally, patients recognize they are getting lost or confused about things that were part of their routine until recently.”

“If others are noticing and commenting on a change, it is more likely to be significant,” warned Robinson. “If having functional problems doing your daily tasks becomes noticeable, pay attention. To have occasional difficulty recalling a word or a memory happens, its often normal.”

Another fact that most people may not know is that men and women with depression may be associated with a higher risk of developing dementia. According to, evidence is emerging about the physical effects that depression can have on the brain, and preventing new episodes lend positive results to your brain health. The positive side is that there are ways to take care of your brain to preserve the number of cells you have right now.

Solving the Puzzle
“If you don’t use it, you lose it,” said Ayer. “The body tries to use energy efficiently for survival and in a manner paralleled to the loss of muscle mass with the lack of exercise, neuronal connections can be lost due to lack of use. Routine tasks can become hard wired over a lifetime, even if that routine task is complicated surgery. However, the ability to learn new things gets difficult with time as neuronal connections are pruned. If you continue to learn new things you can prevent this neuron loss. Sudoku, etc. stimulates the formation of new neuronal connections.”

The better news is that it doesn’t matter if you’re a numbers person, or if you hate math, because there is no clinically proven game that is superior to all others in regards to maintaining cognitive abilities throughout life, according to Ayer. And the more you do, the better.

“Crossword puzzles are the most studied, and show positive effects. However, the engagement in any self-directed self-education helps,” Ayer added. “Mental tasks are like exercise for your brain,” said Robinson. “A mix of brain work is advisable. Tasks that challenge reasoning and the accumulation of new skills rather than only reinforce memory or are repetitive are superior. Sudoku and crosswords are great.”

Does it matter when you got the itch to start engrossing in brain puzzles? Ayer said, “I think young people fully engaged in a rich life are not going to need these puzzles, but as we age, we tend to slow down and engage less in new activities, such as career changes, etc.”

“I would suggest that challenging your brain all through your life is the best strategy, rather than thinking its important only in your childhood and with advancing age,” added Robinson. “It is intuitive to people that staying physically fit is important life-long. Brain health is no different.”

Beyond the Brain Teasers
With this conversation growing bigger and bigger, you can find plenty of resources to get in on the action. Start with a simple brain health quiz on to learn that mental tasks like crossword puzzles and Sudoku are great for keeping your brain sharp, but you can go even further in building new neuronal connections by learning something totally new — like a new language or taking a class on an unfamiliar topic. Overall, it’s the variety in brain games and in learning that is important for keeping our brain healthy. Hundreds of apps exist on your smartphone to enhance brain activity, like problem-solving activities, puzzles, cognitive tests, even fun games for kids. Eating healthy, staying physically active, living heart healthy and interacting in social situations add to a complete plan to staying brain healthy, as well.

Robinson emphasized that there are no shortcuts when it comes to taking care of your brain. There isn’t a supplement or prescription medication you can take to do it for you. Eating a healthy diet and exercise are keys to maintaining brain health, and when it comes to daily tasks, trying new ways of doing things is a great way to keep challenging your brain in a healthy way. That means getting creative with your routine — like using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth or comb your hair.

According to his website, “while practice (sticking to a routine and improving your performance) does help build muscle memory (stored in the brain), challenging your brain to be flexible and to find and practice new patterns and ways of doing things builds new networks in the brain.” So swap your dumbbells and resistance bands for sharpened pencils and comfy seats — it’s time for your (brain) workout.

Sources: and Jim Robsinon, M.D.,
affiliated with Northside Hospital
Robert E. Ayer, MD, a neurosurgeon
affiliated with Gwinnett Medical Center

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