July 25, 2017
Christina DesMarais

Voracious readers, grammarians, wordsmiths, and trivia masters may have an advantage when it comes to staying mentally young, at least if they do something with their skill every day. Researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School and Kings College London crunched online data provided by more than 17,000 people older than 50 and found a correlation between doing word puzzles and improved cognitive performance. They determined that people who do crossword puzzles, for example, have brains that function as if they are 10 years younger than their biological age, particularly when it comes to reasoning speed and short-term memory accuracy.

The study is overhyped, however, when it comes to cause and effect. That’s according to >Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science, the developer of BrainHQ, a brain-training program based on the science of neuroplasticity.

“[It] does not tell us if people who do crosswords have less cognitive decline because of that or if people who have less cognitive decline are more likely to enjoy doing crosswords,” he says, pointing to a different study (PDF) conducted by researchers at University of Virginia. Sorting participants by age, the Virginia researchers found that at every age, people who did crossword puzzles had better cognitive function. However, they found no evidence to suggest that doing more crossword puzzles reduced age-related decreases in cognition.

To really sort this out and answer the cause and effect riddle, scientists do what are called “prospective randomized controlled trials.” In such a study, participants would be randomly assigned to either a crossword or a non-crossword group and tracked over time to determine if crosswords help with cognition.

Mahncke says one such study has been done. Researchers at the University of Iowa ran a 681-person study (the IHAMS Study) in which crosswords were used as the comparison activity against the computerized, plasticity-based brain exercises available in BrainHQ. Researchers found that the BrainHQ group showed significantly larger improvements in speed of processing, attention, and executive function than the crossword puzzle group. The BrainHQ group also showed significantly greater improvements in everyday functioning and in standard measures of mood.

“That’s because people doing crossword puzzles spend most of their time in a fairly static condition of trying to think of a word,” Mahncke says. “BrainHQ users are continuously challenged with dynamically-adjusted exercises to improve the speed and accuracy of information processing in the brain by continuously pushing users to a new personal best.”

Want to make sure your brain stays sharp? The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recently published a report (PDF) which says three things seem to help combat cognitive decline:

1. Brain Exercises

Practicing thinking quickly is particularly effective. Speed of processing is an exercise which was acquired 10 years ago by Mahncke’s company and is used in BrainHQ.

2. Physical Exercise

What’s good for the heart is also likely good for the brain, even though the studies on physical exercise and combating cognitive decline have results that are somewhat mixed.

3. Blood Pressure Medicine

Untreated high blood pressure can negatively affect brain performance over time.