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It's a daily ritual for millions of people. You wake up, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and finally head off to do one or more crosswords, word games, and other brain teasers.
The test of accumulated knowledge and problem-solving ability can either boost or drain your ego. But either way, you're cleaning the cobwebs, right? It's the "use it or lose it" theory in action and as I get older I'd like to think that these mental exercises can help keep my mind sharp and maybe even prevent memory loss, even if my wife is me usually all beat up about the place, these games.
But is there any science behind it, or is it an illusion?
I'm trying to solve this mystery because ever sinceStartI heard the Golden State column two months ago from many readers who, like me, have at least a little faith in the value of mental gymnastics.
"To keep my brain working," wrote Jairo Angulo, 73, of West L.A., "every day I play Wordle, do Jumble, do Sudoku, KenKen, and crosswords."
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José Galván, 77, said he believes his daily routine of crosswords, Wordle and "one or more Sudoku grids" keeps him "mentally sharp".
I don't want to crush the spirits of Angulo, Galván, or anyone else who works at the kitchen table every day, pencil or digital device in hand, but nailing Sudoku or hitting the genius level on the spelling bee might not be advantageous as you think.
"Solving puzzles in and of itself only improves the way you solve them," said Dr. Beau Ances, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in neurodegenerative diseases. "I'm not sure if it improves cognition in the long run."
Ances said she has patients who love the puzzles and she strongly encourages them to continue; Having a daily ritual to look forward to is beneficial in many ways. For example, Galván told me that solving a riddle is good for his self-esteem.
Another benefit, Ances said, is that it's helpful for a doctor to know you used to make it to the end of the week but now miss Wednesday or Thursday as some puzzles get harder as the week goes on.
But don't count on it to avoid senility.
Debra Cherry, a clinical psychologist and executive vice president of Alzheimer's Los Angeles, said there isn't strong evidence to support the widespread belief in the value of puns and other brain-boosting products. actually herAgency websiteoffers a caveat:
“There is a lot of information on the internet about brain health, but it is important to understand that there is currently no proven way to absolutely prevent Alzheimer's or other dementias. Beware of anyone who promises that."
It's not that there's no hope for breakthroughs, Cherry said, and she strongly recommends intellectual stimulation as a part of healthy living. But when it comes to activities that could improve visual acuity, he said, "aerobic exercise is the strongest evidence."
In fact, half a dozen specialists I interviewed cited exercise, a heart-healthy diet, social engagement, good sleep habits, and general physical health as keys to mental acuity.
"Everyone wants to say, 'Oh, I'm doing crossword puzzles or oh, I'm eating blueberries,'" said neuroscientist Dr. Claudia Kawas from UC Irvine, who along-term studyof Laguna Woods residents aged 90 and older. But "a healthy lifestyle includes both physical and cognitive activity, period."
dr Scott Grafton, neuroscientist at UC Santa Barbara and author of "physical intelligence“says that humans didn't evolve to sit around and play word games. Being 75,000 years old, he said, they had to overcome difficult physical and social challenges to survive. Because of our heritage, a brisk walk through the woods is better for us than a stroll in a park, Grafton said, and "the cognitive challenge in the former promotes brain health in profound ways."
dr Lon Schneider, a professor at the USC Keck School of Medicine and a member of the Lancet Commission on Preventing Dementia, once told me that if I occasionally forget where I left my keys, there is no need to worry, unless I find them in the fridge. When I asked him about cognitive maintenance, he sent me oneLanzettenberichtwhich identified 12 risk factors for dementia.
The 12 are binge drinking, head injuries, exposure to air pollution, lack of education, high blood pressure, hearing impairment, smoking, obesity, depression, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes and infrequent social contact.
So avoiding these things as much as possible might be more helpful than mastering Sudoku.
But as we all know, medical science has a long history of shifting opinions about what's good and bad for us, and there's no more mysterious organ in the body than the brain.
And while experts don't quite get it, those I spoke to said learning new things like music and languages could help.
So I was particularly interested in an email from Michael Suttle, a Dana Point resident, who shared a success story.
2010, almost 50 years old, Suttle, software salesman, ocean swimmer and trumpeter, forgot phone numbers and appointments. It got so bad that he started writing his daily schedule so he wouldn't miss meetings.
Some four years later, he said, "I noticed a noticeable improvement in short-term memory and wondered why."
Improvement came just as Suttle returned to music, practicing hard and earning a seat in the newly formed Dana Point Symphony Orchestra. He also joined the Symphony Irvine and as a soloist he had to learn difficult new music, including Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth Symphonies and Mahler's Third, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies.
"Plus, the art of performing these on stage to a full house takes a lot of focus," said Suttle, who found she no longer had to write out her daily schedule.
Selfishly I'd like to believe it was the music that changed things for Suttle because I spent a lot of time on my guitar and learning Spanish. But without large studies over long periods of time, it's difficult to draw any solid conclusions about all of this. It could well be that for Suttle, a specific goal and new social networks were just as useful to him as making music.
Daniel Levitin, a musician and neuroscientist who downplays the benefits of puns in his book Aging Successfully, told me that promoting music is a little easier. When I told him about Suttle, Levitin, who also wrote "This Is Your Brain on Music," said deciphering music he'd never played before was probably crucial, challenging his fingers to extract complex signals from his brain to process.
"There's a possibility that physical and mental tasks can be beneficial together," Levitin said. "You can't make a musical sound without moving something," and this challenges the brain in ways that create "new levels of connectivity." You won't "avoid Alzheimer's," Levitin said, but you might "avoid its noticeable effects."
Another argument for the benefits of music comes from a small short-term memory study that looked at adults in their 60s and 80s.Teodoro Zanto,Director of the Department of Neuroscience at UC San Francisco Neuroscape, told me that 20 participants played a word search game on a tablet for 20 minutes each day, and 20 others played a game that required them to memorize and repeat a musical rhythm.
Participants completed a digital facial recognition test before and after to test their short-term memory. 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 big change," Zanto said, but it does suggest that music can "maybe give you a little edge."
Or through other tasks that challenge the mind or the muscles.
"We're constantly pushing kids to learn things, but we're not pushing ourselves to the other extreme," Kawas said. "I don't think it's a special activity, but the more the brain is challenged, the better, probably."
So if you have a favorite puzzle, keep playing it. But when you're pretty good, move on to the next challenge and it's never too late to learn an instrument or a new language.