Column: Brain-twisted or brain-washed -- can crossword puzzles and word games sharpen memory?
Published in Lifestyles
LOS ANGELES -- It's a daily ritual for millions of people. You wake up, pour a cup of coffee, and eventually make your way to one or more crossword puzzles, word games and other brain twisters.
The test of banked knowledge and problem-solving ability can boost your ego, or deflate it. But either way, you're clearing out the cobwebs, right? It's the "use it or lose it" theory in action, and as I get older, I'd like to believe these mental exercises can help keep my mind sharp and maybe even ward off memory loss, even if my wife usually beats me at all these games.
But is there any science behind that, or is it wishful thinking?
I am trying to solve that riddle, because since launching the Golden State column two months ago, I've heard from a lot of readers who — like me —put at least a bit of faith in the value of mental gymnastics.
"In order to keep my brain functioning," 73-year-old Jairo Angulo of West L.A. wrote, "I play Wordle, complete the Jumble, do the Sudoku, KenKen and crossword puzzles daily."
Jose Galvan, 77, said he thinks his daily routine of a crossword puzzle, Wordle and "one or more Sudoku grids" keeps him "mentally agile."
I'm not out to crush the spirits of Angulo, Galvan or anyone else who labors daily at the kitchen table, pencil or digital device in hand, but nailing Sudoku or reaching genius level in the Spelling Bee might not be as beneficial as you might think.
"Doing puzzles, in and of itself, will only improve how you do the puzzles," said Dr. Beau Ances, a Washington University professor who specializes in neurodegenerative disease. "I am not sure it improves long-term cognition."
Ances said he has patients who love the puzzles and he absolutely encourages them to keep at it; having a daily ritual you look forward to is beneficial in many ways. Galvan, for instance, told me it's good for his self-esteem when he conquers a puzzle.
One more benefit, Ances said, is that because some crosswords get harder as the week goes on, it's useful for a doctor to know that you used to make it to the end of the week but now lose your way by Wednesday or Thursday.
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