At the 2017 Alzheimer's Association International Conference last week researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School and Kings College London presented findings from a study looking at the association between doing word puzzles and brain function. For the more than 17,000 people ages 50 – 96 who participated in the study, there was a direct relationship between the frequency of doing word puzzles and attention, reasoning and memory. The more frequently they were done, the better the cognitive function. Further, the researchers found that the brain function of people who did word puzzles was equivalent to ten years younger than their age on tests of grammatical reasoning speed and short term memory accuracy.

Summary of the conference presentation:

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The results of the research cited above adds to previous knowledge about the relationship between what we do (or don’t do) and how it affects our thinking, memory and learning (cognitive functions) as we age. Loss of all cognitive functions, dementia, is not a normal part of aging. However, as the  Alzheimer’s Research Center at Emory University, points out, some brain functions do normally decline with age, while others are not affected. For example:

  • Intelligence, that is knowledge or experience we accumulated over time, actually remains stable as we age, but knowledge or abilities not based on experience or education tend to decline.
  • Long term or remote memory of events stored over many years remains relatively preserved in old age.  Recent memory or the formation of new memories, however, is more vulnerable to aging. 
  • Attention, simple or focused such as the ability to pay attention to a television program tends to remain as we age.  What may become more difficult is paying attention to two things at the same time, for example watching TV and talking on the phone.
  • Language or verbal skills, including vocabulary, stay with us as we age.  What commonly declines has to do with word retrieval or the process of getting words out.  It takes longer and is more difficult to find the words we want or to recall names of people and objects.  It’s not that the information is lost, it’s just more difficult to find.
  • Reasoning and problem solving abilities stay with us as we age. But, it may take longer to solve problems we never faced before.
  • Processing information and doing things takes more time. It doesn’t mean the activities cannot be done, they just take a little longer.

There are a number of ways known to improve thinking ability including:

Managing stress: High stress levels can impair learning and memory. To counter this, engage in stress reducing activities on a daily basis such as exercise (including walking), meditation or yoga.

Maintaining overall health: Some medical conditions or their treatments may impair thinking. To counter this, keep chronic medical conditions under control, have regular evaluations of medications for possible interactions and eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables containing antioxidants such as blueberries, strawberries, and broccoli and healthy fats such as olive oil.

Using memory joggers: Recognition of new information can be helped with cues to ‘jog’ the memory, for example: following a routine (e.g., always putting the keys in the same place), using external ‘joggers’ (a calendar, a pill box, an alarm on the cell phone), and taking more time to actively process new information (coming up with an association to recall at person’s name)

Sleeping:  Insufficient sleep can affect thinking and memory. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night supports brain health.

Socializing:  Isolation from social interaction negatively affects our brain function. After all, we are social animals. So, stay connected to friends and family, join a club or organization, volunteer, take a class – anything that gets you out and about and interacting with other people.

Keeping mentally stimulated:  This is the “use it or lose it” scenario. Engaging in challenging cognitive tasks such as playing bridge, reading, attending adult education courses, learning a new language or a new musical instrument, can protect against age-related declines in thinking.

Although the research cited above did not investigate if doing word puzzles improves cognitive function, it did find the more frequently people did word puzzles, the better their brain function. So, since doing a crossword or other word puzzle everyday does not require a prescription, have any negative side effects, may help keep you ‘sharp’, and is free – make a cup of coffee, grab a pencil, pull up a chair,  and get to work on that puzzle – your brain may thank you for it.

 Free crossword puzzles are available online from:

American Association of Retired People (AARP)

Washington Post:

LA Times:

New York Times:

For more information

Alzheimer’s Association

Alzhimer’s Disease Research Center -Emory University

Cognitive Skills and Normal Aging

Healthy Aging and Prevention


National Institute on Aging
The changing brain

Cognitive Health and Older Adults