Column: Twisted brain or brainwashing – can crosswords and puns sharpen memory?

It is a daily ritual for millions of people. You wake up, pour a cup of coffee, and eventually head to one or more crosswords, word games, and other puzzles.

Testing banking knowledge and problem-solving ability can either boost your ego or deflate it. But anyway, you’re cleaning up cobwebs, aren’t you? It’s the “use it or lose it” theory in action, and as I get older, I’d like to believe that these mental exercises can help keep my mind sharp and maybe even stave off memory loss, even if my wife usually beats me at all these games.

But is there any science behind it, or is it just wishful thinking?

I’m trying to solve this riddle, because since launching the Golden State column two months ago, I’ve heard from many readers who, like me, believe at least somewhat in the value of mental gymnastics.

“In order to keep my brain functioning,” wrote Jairo Angulo, 73, of West LA, “I play Wordle, complete the Jumble, do Sudoku, KenKen, and crossword puzzles every day.”

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Jose Galvan, 77, said he thought his daily routine of crossword puzzles, Wordle and “one or more Sudoku puzzles” kept him “mentally agile”.

I’m not here to crush the spirits of Angulo, Galvan or anyone else who works at the kitchen table daily, 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 the way you do the puzzles,” said Dr. Beau Ances, a University of Washington professor who specializes in neurodegenerative diseases. “I’m not sure it improves long-term cognition.”

Ances said he has patients who love puzzles and he absolutely encourages them to continue. having a daily ritual that you look forward to is beneficial in many ways. Galvan, for example, told me that it’s good for his self-esteem when he solves a puzzle.

The word yowza in the new edition of Merriam Webster's "Official Scrabble Players Dictionary."

The word yowza in Merriam Webster’s “Official Scrabble Players Dictionary”. To some people’s surprise, scientists say there’s no strong evidence to support a link between puns and brain health.

(Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Another benefit, Ances said, is that because some crossword puzzles get harder as the week progresses, it’s helpful for a doctor to know that you used to come to the end of the week, but you now lose your way on Wednesday or Thursday.

But don’t count on it to ward off senility.

Debra Cherry, clinical psychologist and executive vice president of Alzheimer’s Los Angeles, said there’s no strong evidence to support widespread belief in the value of word games and other brain-enhancing products. . In fact, her agency’s website offers a disclaimer:

“There is a lot of information available on the internet on the subject of keeping your brain healthy, but it is important to understand that there is currently no proven way to absolutely prevent Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. . Beware of anyone who promises to do so.

Not that there isn’t hope for breakthroughs, Cherry said, and she strongly recommends intellectual stimulation as a part of healthy living. But when it comes to activities that can improve acuity, she says, “the strongest evidence is for aerobic exercise.”

In fact, exercise, heart-healthy eating, social engagement, good sleep habits, and general physical health were cited by half a dozen experts I asked about the keys to mental sharpness.

“Everyone wants to say, ‘Oh, if I do a crossword puzzle, or oh, if I eat blueberries,'” said UC Irvine neuroscientist Dr. Claudia Kawas, who launched a long-running study term on Laguna Woods residents age 90 and older. But “a healthy lifestyle involves physical and cognitive activities, period.”

Dr. Scott Grafton, a neuroscientist at UC Santa Barbara and author of “Physical Intelligence,” explains that humans didn’t evolve to sit around playing word games. 75,000 years ago, he says, they had to overcome difficult physical and social challenges to survive. Because of where we come from, a brisk off-road walk in the woods is better for us than a walk in a park, Grafton said, and “the cognitive challenge in the former drives the brain health of deep way”.

Hands rest on a diary page that displays crosswords and Sudoku puzzles.

The Lancet Commission identified 12 risk factors for dementia, including excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, and infrequent social contact. So avoiding these things, whenever possible, might be more useful than mastering Sudoku.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Dr. Lon Schneider, a professor at USC’s Keck School of Medicine who serves on the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, once told me that if I sometimes forget where I left my keys, it nothing to worry about unless I find them in the fridge. When I asked him about the cognitive interview, he sent me a Lancet report that identified 12 risk factors for dementia.

The 12 are excessive alcohol consumption, brain injury, exposure to air pollution, lack of education, hypertension, hearing impairment, smoking, obesity, depression, l physical inactivity, diabetes and infrequent social contact.

So avoiding these things, whenever possible, might be more useful than mastering Sudoku.

But as we all know, medical science has a long history of changing its mind about what’s good or bad for us, and there’s no more mysterious organ in the body than the brain.

And while the experts don’t fully understand it, those I spoke to said learning new things — like music and language — could be helpful.

That’s why I was particularly interested in an email from Michael Suttle, a Dana Point resident who shared a success story.

In 2010, in his late 50s, Suttle, a software salesman, ocean swimmer and trumpeter, found himself forgetting phone numbers and appointments. It got so bad that he started writing down his daily schedule so he wouldn’t miss meetings.

About four years later, he says, “I noticed a remarkable improvement in short-term memory and wondered why.”

The improvement came just as Suttle was rededicating himself to music, training hard, and earning a seat in the newly formed Dana Point Symphony Orchestra. He also joined Symphony Irvine, and as a concert performer he had to learn difficult new music, including Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies and Mahler’s Third, Fourth and Fifth.

Two men, dressed in tuxedos and bow ties, play the trumpet.

Michael Suttle, left, plays with Symphony Irvine and thinks the music has sharpened his memory.

(Edie Van Huss)

“Plus, the art of performing them on stage in front of a packed house requires a ton of focus,” said Suttle, who found he no longer needed to write down his daily schedule.

I would selfishly like to think that it was music that changed things for Suttle, because I spent time on my guitar and learned Spanish. But without large studies over long periods of time, it’s hard to draw solid conclusions about this. It may well be that for Suttle, having a specific purpose and new social networks are as useful to him as playing music.

Daniel Levitin, a musician and neuroscientist who exposes the benefits of puns in his book “Successful Aging,” told me that making the case for music is a little easier. When I told him about Suttle, Levitin – who also wrote “This Is Your Brain on Music” – said it was likely that decoding music he had never played before was key, putting his fingers challenged to process the complex signals of his brain.

“It’s possible that physical and mental tasks in tandem could be beneficial,” Levitin said. “You can’t create musical sound without moving something,” and it challenges the brain in ways that create “new layers of connectivity.” You won’t “ward off Alzheimer’s disease,” Levitin said, but you might “ward off its noticeable effects.”

Another argument for the benefits of music comes from a small short-term memory study that tested adults between the ages of 60 and 80. Theodore Zanto, director of the Neuroscience Division at UC San Francisco Neuroscape, told me that 20 participants have been playing a word search game for 20 years. minutes each day on a tablet, and 20 others played a game that asked them to remember and repeat a musical rhythm.

Participants took a digital facial recognition test before and after, testing their short-term memory abilities. After the eight weeks of play, the word search group showed no improvement, but the music group showed a 4% improvement.

“It’s not a huge change,” Zanto said, but it does suggest “maybe you can get an edge” through music.

Or through other tasks that challenge the mind or the muscles.

“We push kids to learn things all the time, but we don’t push ourselves to the other end,” Kawas said. “I don’t think it’s a specific activity, but the more the brain is used, the better it is probably.”

So if you have a favorite puzzle, keep playing. But when you get good enough, take on the next challenge, and it’s never too late to learn an instrument or a new language.

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