Can doing crosswords and sudoku help optimize our cognitive health?

Some of you readers undoubtedly love crosswords or sudoku, or even both! A recent study, the largest to date, has revealed the possible beneficial effects of these reflective activities on cognitive function in seniors. The research has led to the publication of two articles in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. So, is it time for everyone else to start puzzling over letter and number grids?

More than 19,000! That's the (rather impressive) number of participants enrolled in the study presented here. All of these over-50-year-old subjects registered with Protect, an online platform managed by the University of Exeter and King’s College in London. Each participant had to report the frequency with which he or she did crosswords or sudoku and perform a series of regular cognitive tests. Currently, the platform has more than 22,000 users and the research will be extended to the US and Hong Kong.

A first study analyzed data from 19,078 healthy subjects, ages 50 to 93, who self-reported the frequency with which they did “digital puzzles” (like sudoku). A 6–level scale was created from “more than once a day” to “never." Two sets of tests were used to evaluate various aspects of cognitive function, such as reasoning, focused attention, and working and episodic memory. The results were analyzed using 14 cognitive measures and indicated a close relationship between the frequency of Sudoku practice and the subjects’ cognitive function. While not all of the results were statistically significant, those subjects who engaged in the activity the most (more than once a day) showed brain function equivalent to someone ten years younger (for the grammatical reasoning tests) and eight years younger for the short-term memory tests.

The second study on the same cohort analyzed the effect of self-reported word-grid (crosswords, word searches, word puzzles) engagement frequency on the same 6-level scale. As in the first study, the subjects that never engaged in this type of activity had the lowest performance on the cognitive tests. Those who reported doing puzzles only occasionally also performed considerably worse than the other groups. It is also worth noting that the two highest frequency groups were distinguished by the speed of execution on the various cognitive tasks (particularly for grammatical reasoning).

Anne Corbett, director of research at the University of Exeter’s Medical School said: “the more regularly participants engaged with the puzzles, the better they performed on tasks assessing attention, reasoning and memory.” According to her, this research indicates that doing word and number puzzles on a daily basis could help our brains function better longer.

This large-scale research provides increasingly strong evidence that performing mentally stimulating activities can only be beneficial to our cognitive health.

Get back to your puzzles!
Source: Keith A. Wesnes, Helen Brooker, Clive Ballard, Adam Hampshire, Dag Aarsland, Zunera Khan, Rob Stenton, Laura McCambridge and Anne Corbett. “An online investigation of the relationship between the frequency of word puzzle use and cognitive function in a large sample of older adults”, in International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Nov. 2018 // Helen Brooker, Keith A. Wesnes, Clive Ballard, Adam Hampshire, Dag Aarsland, Zunera Khan, Rob Stenton, Maria Megalogeni and Anne Corbett. “The relationship between the frequency of number-puzzle use and baseline cognitive function in a large online sample of adults aged 50 and over”, in International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Feb. 2019 // University of Exeter website: “Regular crosswords and number puzzles linked to sharper brain in later life”.


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