Looking for a good way to pass the time this winter inside with the kids? It might be a good idea to crack open that new crossword puzzle or sudoku book you got for the holidays.
A new study finds brain exercises like chess, crossword, sudoku, or other problem-solving puzzles may not slow a mental decline later in life, but when used over time, may give you a higher platform from which to fall.
The study in the journal BMJ started with nearly 500 volunteers. The participants had all taken a group intelligence test in Scotland when they were 11 years old, and were about 64 years old when this study began. Researchers followed their cognitive performance, testing them five more times over the next 14 years.
Researchers found no association between problem-solving and the slope of decline later in life. However, problem-solving was associated with gaining ability during a lifetime, leading to a superior cognitive performance. Therefore, when the decline began, those with a stronger ability started from a higher point, offsetting the point at which impairment became significant. Researchers say that shows problem solving throughout life could prove to be a valuable investment, leading to bigger cognitive gains than other life course variables such as education, childhood intelligence, and crystallized ability.
Dr. Roger Staff, the head of imaging physics at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, was the lead researcher on the study. He says the results show problem-solving "pastimes do contribute to your cognitive health over the life course, although taking these pastimes up in late life is probably of limited value".
Dr. Staff and his team of researchers measured the volunteers cognitive levels using a questionnaire covering reading and problem solving. It also used abstract questions to estimate the person's tendency to consider ideas and concepts in depth, as well as intellectually curious questions. Those assessed the subject's desire to learn about new topics through different forms of media.
By the end of the 15 year study, 96 subjects of the initial 498 remained. The rest had passed away, or declined a follow-up interview. The researchers note: "Generally, all ageing studies of this type are hindered by participant dropout, and those individuals who are cognitively declining are more likely not to return for retesting." They found, as expected, age related cognitive decline was observed for both memory and speed of performance.
The volunteers self-reported their level of engagement, and researchers say further studies could really delve into how much intellectual commitment a person makes while taking part in a puzzle or game, and the intensity of that commitment. That could help them determine whether problem-solving puzzles can help older adults at all, or if it's too little, too late.
In the meantime, don't put those puzzles and games away, no matter your age. The researchers note in their findings, regardless of the result of this or future studies, keeping your brain active certainly can't hurt it!
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.