An age-old brain teaser, the crossword puzzle, may offer some assistance to older persons hoping to prevent the progression of memory loss.
A small study that examined older persons with mild cognitive impairment—memory and reasoning issues that could eventually lead to dementia—suggests that. In tests of memory and other mental abilities, people who were randomly assigned to do crossword puzzles for 18 months showed a slight improvement.
In contrast, study participants who were given a more contemporary brain exercise—computer games meant to stimulate different mental faculties—performed better. Their test results generally slipped over time.
The study was modest and had other drawbacks, experts said. For starters, there was no “control group” of volunteers who did not engage in any brain training. Therefore, it is unclear whether solving crossword puzzles or playing video games is much superior to doing nothing.
Lead researcher Dr. Davangere Devanand, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at Columbia University in New York City, said, “This is not conclusive.”
Larger trials, including a control group, he claimed, are still required.
According to Devanand, the results as they stand were unexpected. The researchers predicted that video games would triumph going into the testing. Such games have been shown to help older persons who are cognitively healthy improve their mental acuity in previous research.
It’s unclear why crosswords prevailed in this experiment. However, according to Devanand, there was evidence that the crossword puzzles were particularly more successful for individuals in the “late” stage of mild cognitive impairment, which may imply that they found it simpler to manage the puzzles.
The NEJM Evidence journal recently published the findings online.
Age-related mild cognitive impairment is typical, yet it doesn’t always turn into dementia. However, it frequently does. According to the U.S. National Institute on Aging, 10% to 20% of persons 65 and older who have these deficits are thought to develop dementia over the course of a year.
Mentally stimulating activities are one method being researched by researchers to slow or stop the progression of dementia.
Brain games may improve memory and thinking skills in adults with mild cognitive impairment, according to some research; nevertheless, the types of gains noticed in different trials have been very variable.
Devanand also raises the question of whether certain specific brain workouts are superior to others.
His team decided to compare the outcomes of online computer games and crossword puzzles as a result.
The 107 older persons with modest cognitive impairment that the researchers recruited were randomly assigned to either sort of brain training. Lessons on how to sign in and use the games or puzzles were given to each participant.
The crossword puzzles were available online, but Devanand observed that other than that, they were identical to the traditional paper-and-pencil versions. They were on par with a Thursday New York Times crossword in terms of difficulty.
The researchers discovered that, after 18 months, the crossword group had improved by, on average, 1 point on a scale designed to measure cognitive deterioration that was primarily focused on memory and linguistic abilities.
In comparison, participants in the game group experienced an average drop of 0.5 points.
Individuals did, however, differ. For example, in the games group, about 25% of the participants saw at least a 2-point increase in their scores.
The difference between the two brain exercises was particularly noticeable among patients in the final stages of mild cognitive impairment, the researchers found when they paid closer attention.
Devanand said that crossword problems may have been simpler for elderly people with more severe disabilities.
Because there was no control group, “limited conclusions” may be drawn from the results, according to a specialist who was not engaged in the study.
Claire Sexton, senior director of scientific programmes and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association, stated that the results “open the door to follow-up trials to directly examine the likelihood of benefit from computerised crossword puzzles.”
She emphasised, though, that it’s doubtful that any one intervention, whether it be crosswords or something else, will have a significant impact on how a complicated disease like dementia develops.
Sexton said that “multidomain therapies that simultaneously address numerous risk factors” may have greater potential.
Sexton pointed out that the U.S. Pointer trial, funded by the Alzheimer’s Association, is investigating such possibility. It examines if a mix of strategies, such as physical exercise, mental challenges, and better treatment of high blood pressure and diabetes, can help older people who are more at risk of cognitive deterioration.
Currently, there isn’t much danger in developing a crossword puzzle habit.
In this field, we have a saying about the brain, said Devanand. Utilize it or lose it.
On safeguarding the health of the brain, consult the Alzheimer’s Association.
SOURCES: Claire Sexton, DPhil, senior director, scientific programmes and outreach, Alzheimer’s Association, Chicago; Davangere P. Devanand, MD, professor of psychiatry and neurology, Columbia University Medical Center, New York City; NEJM Evidence