by Amy Norton
health day reporter
Wed, Nov. 2, 2022 (HealthDay News) — Seniors looking to slow memory loss may find some help in a classic brain teaser: the crossword puzzle.
That’s the recommendation of a small study tracking older adults with mild cognitive impairment — problems with memory and thinking that can progress to dementia over time. The researchers found that those randomly assigned to do crosswords for 18 months showed small improvements in tests of memory and other mental skills.
This is in stark contrast to study participants who were assigned a more modern brain exercise: computer games designed to engage in a variety of mental abilities. On average, their test scores declined slightly over time.
Experts warn that the study is small and has other limitations. For one thing, it lacked a “control group” of participants who didn’t do brain exercise. So it’s not clear whether doing crosswords or playing games is much better than doing nothing at all.
“It’s not definitive,” said lead researcher Dr. Davangere Devanand, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at Columbia University in New York City.
Larger studies, including control groups, are still needed, he said.
In fact, the current results are unexpected, Devanand said. Entering the experimental phase, the researchers suspected that computer games would be even better. Past research has found that such games can help older adults without cognitive impairments improve their mental acuity.
It’s unclear why the crossword won the trial. But, Dewanand said, there’s some evidence that the puzzles are especially effective for people with “late stages” of mild cognitive impairment — a possible sign that crosswords are more manageable for them.
The findings were recently published online in the journal NEJM evidence.
Mild cognitive impairment is common with age and does not always progress to dementia. But in many cases it does. According to the National Institute on Aging, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of adults 65 and older with this disorder will develop dementia within a year.
Researchers hope to find ways to delay or prevent the progression of dementia, and psychostimulatory activities are one avenue being investigated.
Some studies have found that brain games can help people with mild cognitive impairment improve their memory and thinking skills — although the types of improvements that studies find vary widely.
One question, according to Devanand, is whether any particular type of brain exercise is better than others.
So his team set out to compare the performance of web-based computer games and web-based crossword puzzles.
The researchers recruited 107 older adults with mild cognitive impairment and randomly assigned them to either type of brain exercise. All participants received lessons on how to log in and use the game or puzzle.
Devanand points out that although the crosswords are online, they are otherwise identical to old-fashioned pen and paper games.They are of medium difficulty – at one level New York Times Thursday’s puzzle.
The researchers found that after 18 months, the crossword group had improved by about 1 percentage point on average, on a standard scale that assesses cognitive decline — mostly focusing on memory and language skills.
In contrast, those in the gaming group dropped an average of half a percentage point.
However, individuals do vary. For example, about a quarter of the game groups improved their scores by at least 2 points.
When the researchers looked closely, differences between the two brain exercises were specifically found in people with advanced mild cognitive impairment.
It’s possible, Dewanand said, that crossword puzzles are more manageable for older adults with more severe disabilities.
An expert not involved in the study said “limited conclusions” could be drawn from the findings – in part because there was no control group.
“However, the results open the door for follow-up trials to directly examine the possibility of benefiting from computer crossword puzzles,” said Claire Sexton, senior director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association.
However, she stressed that any single measure – crossword or otherwise – is unlikely to have a significant impact on the progression of complex diseases such as dementia.
Instead, Sexton said, the greatest potential may lie in “multidisciplinary interventions targeting many risk factors simultaneously.”
Sexton noted that the Alzheimer’s Association is funding a trial called US Pointer to test this possibility. It is investigating whether multiple strategies — including physical activity, brain exercise and better control of high blood pressure and diabetes — could benefit older adults who are at increased risk of cognitive decline.
For now, the risk of developing a crossword habit is at least minimal.
“We have a say in the field about the brain,” Dewanand said. “Use it or lose it.”
The Alzheimer’s Association has recommendations for protecting brain health.
Sources: Davangere P. Devanand, MD, professor of psychiatry and neurology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City; Claire Sexton, PhD, senior director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago; New England Journal of Medicine Evidence, October 27, 2022, online