Want to slow down, delay or reverse dementia? Try this classic game.

A few years ago I bought a big crossword puzzle book and started doing one every day. I found something special. At each crossword, I was first stuck on many clues. But when I came back to it the next morning, or even a few hours later the same day, I found that almost all of them came off easily. My brain had apparently been working on the clues, subconsciously, while I was doing other things.

So I’m encouraged, but not totally surprised, by an exciting scientific discovery. It turns out that doing crossword puzzles is good for our brains. This can delay the onset of aging. It can delay dementia. It can slow or delay cognitive decline. It can even – and this is truly remarkable – reverse cognitive decline.

Oh, and it turns out that crosswords might be better for our brains than the electronic “brain training” games you can get on your computer or that little device you carry around in your pocket (and which seems turning everyone’s brains to mush, although that’s a story for another day).

Not Me Speaking: This is a new article in the journal NEJM Evidence, where NEJM is the artist formerly known as The New England Journal of Medicine.

15 medical researchers from Columbia, Duke and the City University of New York report on a trial they recently conducted over 78 weeks – a year and a half – with more than 100 participants.

Subjects ranged in age from 55 to 95, with an average age of 76, and suffered from early to advanced mild cognitive impairment.

During the initial 12-week period, half of the subjects participated in computer-based brain training games during an initial 12-week period, including games that included “memory tasks, matching, spatial recognition tasks and processing speed tasks. The other half did crosswords (also computer-based) of supposedly medium difficulty, which the researchers said were roughly the equivalent of The New York Times Thursday crosswords. After the 12-week period, there were six more “recall” sessions.

The researchers then did follow-up studies over the next 60 months to see what differences, if any, the exercises made.

Conclusion: those who had done crossword puzzles did on average much better than those who had done computer games.

Read: Goodbye, senior centers and retirement homes. Older people do not want to spend their time in places where they are seen as declining victims.

“Crosswords showed superior efficacy to games in cognitive outcome…with a small to medium effect size,” the researchers report.

On a standardized test known as the ‘Alzheimer’s Disease Rating Scale Cognitive Score’, they write, after the full 78 weeks, those who had played the games showed a ‘small decline’. on average while those who had done the crosswords showed improvement.

Those who had done the crosswords were 50% more likely to show significant improvement in cognitive scores (i.e. more than 2 points on the scale, although over a possible total range of 70 points). More than a third of those who did the crosswords showed an improvement of more than 2 points, compared to only a quarter of those who had done the games.

Those who did games were 50% more likely to progress to full-blown dementia over the period than those who did crosswords, at a rate of 15.7% to 10.7% (although we are dealing with very small numbers).

Lily: 4 things you can do to fight dementia and improve your memory

The differences even appeared in the structure of the brain. After 78 weeks, MRIs showed that those who did the crossword puzzles had smaller declines in their hippocampus size and cerebral cortex thickness than those who did the games instead.

The researchers admit they were surprised by their findings.

“These results were unexpected and in opposition to the proposed hypotheses,” they note. “The choice of games was based on experience from a large dataset of online games that was selected for feasibility and targeted to improve memory and executive ability.” They added that crossword puzzles had a big advantage for people with advanced cognitive decline: they were much easier to do.

The latest study is not the only one in its field and its results can hardly end the debate. It was a small number, barely 50 in each group. The researchers note that other studies have shown games to have a positive effect on cognitive function as well. What scientists don’t know about the brain, aging and dementia is far more important than what they know, and each new study barely scratches the dark side of ignorance.

But the latest adds to growing signs that engaging in complex mental activities is good for your brain and may well lower your risk of dementia. The researchers note that an earlier systematic review of 22 studies found that doing things like reading books, playing checkers, and doing crosswords or other puzzles “reduced the overall risk of incident dementia by 46% over the course of ‘a median period of 7 years’.

How much will crosswords really help us prevent dementia? We still don’t know for sure. But unless someone is willing to argue that doing crossword puzzles might be bad for you, the risks are just asymmetric. Lots of potential upsides, no downsides. If you’ve ever seen a loved one suffer from dementia, you probably won’t need any further impetus to purchase or simply download a crossword puzzle.

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