Are Crossword Puzzles Good for Brain Health? Maybe…Jan 26, 2024 11:47AM ● By Kelly O’Shea Carney, PhD, ABPP, Chair, Dementia Friendly Lehigh Valley
There is a common belief that doing a crossword puzzle every day will help preserve cognitive function. While there is a grain of truth in this idea, like many commonly held beliefs, there is more to it than you might realize. It is more accurate to say that doing a crossword puzzle every day is good for your brain health if you don’t usually do crossword puzzles. If the New York Times daily crossword has been your favorite pastime for years, learning to square dance may be better for your brain health. And if you both square dance and do crossword puzzles, then perhaps tutoring kids as a volunteer may be better for your brain.
The reality is that our brains need novelty to optimize function. This is true because of the phenomenon of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the capacity of the brain to develop new brain cell pathways and connections when challenged with unfamiliar tasks and require a bit of effort. Brain cells, or neurons, are shaped somewhat like trees, with a long stalk running top to bottom and a variety of branches extending from that center. When the brain is challenged by unfamiliar tasks, over time these new tasks encourage the branches of the neurons to grow into new directions and make new connections. The more interconnected the brain cells become, the stronger the networking, communication, and coordination across different areas of the brain will be.
When we do not challenge our brains with new and challenging tasks, the brain is deprived of the stimulation it needs to keep evolving the internal density and complexity of the networks of brain cells. For that reason, it is good to try new things, to learn new things, and to challenge ourselves. It is important to remember that all aspects of our function are managed by the brain. So, the new activities and tasks we try can come in a variety of forms. For example, if you have always played tennis, incorporating swimming, yoga, or dancing into your exercise routine will challenge growth in your brain. If your favorite “brain teaser” has been to do a crossword puzzle, perhaps learning a new language, playing Sudoku, or attempting to solve a visual pattern game, like Tiles or Vertex, will give your brain a chance to grow in a new direction. If you have never tried meditation, give it a go. If you have never joined a book club, try it. And if you have always enjoyed rock and roll concerts for entertainment, consider going to an art or science museum for a Saturday afternoon outing.
The point is that our brains are literally designed for flexibility and evolution. When we stick to the same old routine and only do the things we know we are already good at, our brains use the same well-developed pathways of processing that were laid long ago. When we try something new, and even when we experience a little frustration or even failure as we learn, our brains are stimulated to grow and evolve. Moreover, as we encourage the development of new pathways and connections among brain cells, we are also building the strength and resilience of our brain function. Then, if we ever do encounter dementia or another illness or injury that challenges brain function, our brains will have greater reserve capacity as a result of the dense connections and complex pathways that have developed. This is what scientists call “cognitive reserve,” and this reserve is what helps people in the early stages of dementia function better longer.
So, are crossword puzzles good for your brain? Maybe. But only if you haven’t done them before and also try lots of other new things after you enjoy your daily crossword!
To learn more about brain health and sign up for the Dementia-Friendly Lehigh Valley Quarterly Newsletter, please visit dementialv.org.
The coalition seeks to raise awareness of, and reduce the stigma surrounding, Alzheimer’s and related disorders.