People Tout the Brain Benefits of Word Puzzles—Are They Legit?

In case you haven't heard: Wordle has taken over. The five-letter online word game has captivated people with its challenge to guess a daily word within six attempts. Wordle-lovers post the results of their yellow, green, and grey squares on Twitter, along with commentary about what their score might signal for how the rest of their day will go.

Whether you're obsessed with Wordle, couldn't be bothered, or are kind of annoyed at all the results showing up in your Twitter feed, the country's resurrected word puzzle love is raising some questions about what, exactly, these do for you.

People who love word puzzles often claim they're good for your brain, but is that legitimate or totally bogus? Scientists break it down.

Are word puzzles good for you

Wordle fans aren't making this up: Research has shown that word puzzles are good for your brain.

"Activities such as puzzles help maintain cognitive connections and networks in aging brains," says Joe Verghese, MD, chief of the Divisions of Cognitive & Motor Aging and Geriatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who has researched the link between word puzzles and memory.

In one study Dr. Verghese did, 488 people were given cognitive assessments every 12 to 18 months. Dr. Verghese and his colleagues found that people who did crossword puzzles regularly ended up delaying memory issues by about 2.5 years, regardless of how educated they were or how much they did other mentally stimulating activities.

"Our findings show that late-life crossword puzzle participation, independent of education, was associated with delayed onset of memory decline in persons who developed dementia," he and his colleagues concluded. "Given the wide availability and accessibility of crossword puzzles, their role in preventing cognitive decline should be validated in future clinical trials."

Another study, led by Helen Brooker, a senior research fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School who studies dementia and aging, analyzed data from more than 19,000 mentally healthy people between 50 and 93 years old who enrolled in an online study. Participants were asked to report how often they did word puzzles before taking cognitive tests that assessed factors like focused and sustained attention, information processing, executive function, working memory, and episodic memory.

The researchers found that people who never did word puzzles performed the worst on cognitive tests, while those who did word puzzles daily or more than once a day performed the best. "The frequency of word puzzle use is directly related to cognitive function in adults aged 50 and over," Brooker and her fellow researchers wrote. "Future work needs to determine whether engaging in such puzzles can favorably influence cognitive trajectory with age."

How do word puzzles impact your brain health

That's still being explored, but there are some theories. "Puzzles contribute to building cognitive reserve in the brain, which helps in resisting the deleterious effects of dementia pathology," Dr. Verghese says. Meaning, word puzzles may help make your brain resilient and more likely to ward off factors that can lead to dementia.

Word puzzles also serve as a form of exercise for your brain, Brooker says. "Keeping your brain active is an important part of keeping healthy," she says. "In the same way, we are encouraged to regularly exercise our bodies, the same applies to our brains. It's that old concept of use it or lose it that rings true."

How often should you do word puzzles

In general, it's good to make these a regular thing. "The more often, the better," Dr. Verghese says. "But the puzzles should also be challenging. It is important not only to do these activities frequently but also keep increasing the level of difficulty and challenge."

In terms of exactly how often to do them, Brooker says that data show that two to four times a week "is ideal and offers the most benefit."

What else can you do to boost your brain health

Word puzzles aren't for everyone, and if that includes you, it's more than OK—it doesn't mean you're doomed to develop dementia or poor cognitive health as you get older. Still, there are other things you can do to boost your brain health.

"Any cognitively stimulating activity that is done regularly as well as is challenging and fun should have beneficial brain effects," Dr. Verghese says. "These include number puzzles, computer games, reading, and playing musical instruments."

Brooker also says doing quizzes or playing games like Trivial Pursuit can help. "Word and number puzzles are great, but it's keeping your brain active that matters," she says.

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