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Crossword Puzzles and Dementia

Crossword Puzzles and Dementia

It is often said that puzzles do many good things for the brain. They are challenging and force people to actively think. With the rise of dementia in America, public interest in finding a cure or prevention method has increased. Scientist and academics are now constantly attempting to solve the issue.  A hypothesis that many of them have, is that doing cognitive stimulating activities will prevent the onset of dementia. There have been several studies on crossword puzzles and whether or not they can prevent cognitive decline. Their popularity in society combined with their accessibility and low cost have made them a point of interest. Despite numerous studies, scientists haven’t been able to reach a consensus on their effectiveness. Some claim that it helps prevent dementia, while others say that there isn’t enough empirical evidence to support the claim. 

What Is Cognitive Exercise? 

Often called “brain exercise,” cognitive exercise is said to improve cognitive functions such as self-control, critical thinking, visual and auditory processing, and staying on task. It is believed that just like a muscle, the brain can be trained to perform the way you want. Doing cognitive exercises isn’t as complicated as it sounds; it simply means challenging yourself mentally. Reading, board games, playing cards, and musical instruments are all examples of cognitive exercises. Another example of cognitive exercise is crossword puzzles. Crosswords force you to remember correct spelling, think of synonyms, and analyze clues. 

While some claim that cognitive exercises, like doing crosswords, will keep you mentally sharp, others say that this is not true. Critics suggest that big companies who sell cognitive training guides and apps are funding the research that concludes that they work.

Empirical Evidence

Over the years, there have been many studies that have been done on the subject. Some acclaimed universities and institutes have concluded that specifically crossword puzzles help reduce the risk of dementia. A study was conducted from 1980 to 1983 in New York, which led the researchers to believe that crossword puzzles are effective. Elderly men and women from the city who enrolled were divided into experimental groups and control groups. Those in the experimental group were given daily crossword puzzles, while those in the control were not. From the number of people in each group that developed dementia, those in the experimental group, on average, developed it 2.54 years later. According to the scientists this was enough to claim that crosswords work in the prevention of dementia. 

It should be noted that those in the experimental group experienced a more rapid cognitive decline once they got dementia than those in the control group. This sparked a debate in the academic community because the reason was unknown. There are theories as to why, but most believe that it was exogenous variables. 

Anecdotal Evidence 

People with family members or loved ones who develop dementia or are in the beginning stages, will often attempt to find a way to help. The Internet will tell you that among other things, crossword puzzles are a miracle. You hear stories about sons and daughters who feared that one of their parents was on the road to onset dementia. As a response, they gave them crosswords to do, which they claim halted or in some cases, slowed down the process. 

Nurses who care for patients with or getting dementia often give them crossword puzzles to complete, because they say they’ve seen the positive effects it can have. Nurses see hundred, maybe thousands of patients during their career, and they certainly learn things along the way. 

One should be skeptical about anecdotal evidence. There are too many uncontrolled variables to conclude whether crossword puzzles are a good way to combat dementia. 

Those Who Claim Crosswords Don’t Help

Just as there are many people who claim that crosswords help fight dementia, there is an equal amount of people who claim that it doesn’t. First of all, although there are studies proving its effectiveness, there are studies that conclude there is no benefit. The studies on the topic are all performed very similarly to the one conducted in New York in the 1980s, which makes the issue very polarizing. 

Some neurologists claim that the very idea of cognitive training is incorrect. They assert that the brain is in fact not like a muscle and you can’t improve its condition by “exercising” it. Stanford released a statement saying that there is no evidence that brain training works, which was signed by over 70 world leading neuroscientists and psychologists. 

Since crossword puzzles fall in the category of cognitive training by their very nature, those who claim the brain can’t be exercised are therefore saying that crossword puzzles can’t prevent dementia or reverse it. 

What To Do?

There are two different claims: it helps fight dementia and it doesn’t help fight dementia. Each side has compelling arguments and supporting evidence for their claims, which makes coming to a conclusion about the issue quite difficult. 

You can read and analyze the studies published and attempt to come to a conclusion yourself, but doing this isn’t easy. These studies are very complicated and it’s the leading minds in the researchers’ respective fields conducting the experiments. It may be difficult to understand and properly analyze what they’ve done to come to the conclusion they have. 

Doing crossword puzzles may or may not help fight dementia. If it does help, then it’s recommended that you do them, of course. If they don’t, then you don’t have to do them in order to maintain your cognitive abilities. The issue is that there is no clear answer. With that being said, considering we don’t know if cognitive training works, you should do brain-training exercises like crossword puzzles. The reason being is that there is no disadvantage in doing them. 

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