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Column: Brain twisted or brainwashed: can crossword puzzles and word games sharpen memory?

It is a daily ritual for millions of people. You wake up, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and finally make your way to one or more crossword puzzles, word games, and other brain teasers.

The test of accumulated knowledge and problem-solving ability can either boost your ego or deflate it. But either way, you’re cleaning the cobwebs, right? It’s “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 prevent memory loss, even if my wife usually beats me up all over the place. these games.

But is there any science behind it, or is it an illusion?

I’m trying to solve that puzzle, because since I launched the Golden State column two months ago, I’ve heard 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 LA, “I play Wordle, complete Jumble, do Sudoku, KenKen, and crossword puzzles every day.”

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José Galván, 77, said he believes his daily routine of a crossword, Wordle and “one or more Sudoku grids” keeps him “mentally sharp”.

I don’t mean to crush the spirits of Angulo, Galván, or anyone else who works daily at the kitchen table, pencil or digital device in hand, but nailing Sudoku or reaching genius level on the Spelling Bee might not be as beneficial as you. think.

“Doing puzzles, in and of itself, will only improve how you do them,” said Dr. Beau Ances, a University of Washington professor who specializes in neurodegenerative diseases. “I’m not sure it improves cognition in the long run.”

Ances said she has patients who love the puzzles and she absolutely encourages them to keep doing it; having a daily ritual that you look forward to is beneficial in many ways. Galván, for example, told me that it is 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 the surprise of some people, scientists say there is no strong evidence to support a connection between word games and brain health.

(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

One more benefit, Ances said, is that because some puzzles get more difficult as the week progresses, it’s helpful for a doctor to know that you used to make it to the end of the week but now miss Wednesday or Thursday.

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 is no strong evidence to support widespread belief in the value of word games and other brain-enhancing products. in fact, she agency website offers a caveat:

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

It’s not that there’s no hope for breakthroughs, Cherry said, and she strongly recommends intellectual stimulation as a component of healthy living. But when it comes to activities that might improve sharpness, she said, “the strongest evidence is aerobic exercise.”

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.

“Everybody wants to say, ‘Oh, I do crossword puzzles, or oh, I eat blueberries,'” said UC Irvine neuroscientist Dr. Claudia Kawas, who started a long term study of Laguna Woods residents age 90 and older. But “a healthy lifestyle involves both physical and cognitive activities, period.”

Dr. Scott Grafton, UC Santa Barbara neuroscientist and author of “physical intelligence,” says that humans did not evolve to sit around and play word games. Dating back 75,000 years, she said, they had to overcome difficult physical and social challenges to survive. Because of where we come from, a brisk walk through the woods is better for us than a walk in a park, Grafton said, and “the cognitive challenge in the former boosts brain health in profound ways.”

The hands rest on a newspaper page that shows crossword puzzles and sudoku puzzles.

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

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Dr. Lon Schneider, a professor at USC Keck School of Medicine who is on the Lancet Commission on preventing dementia, once told me that if I occasionally forget where I left my keys, there’s no cause for concern unless I find them in the fridge. When I asked him about cognitive maintenance, he sent me a lancet report which identified 12 risk factors for dementia.

The 12 are binge drinking, head injury, exposure to air pollution, lack of education, high blood pressure, hearing impairment, smoking, obesity, depression, physical inactivity, diabetes, and infrequent social contact.

So avoiding those things, as much as possible, might be more helpful than mastering Sudoku.

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

And while experts don’t fully understand it, the ones I spoke to said that learning new things, like music and languages, 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, when he was almost 50 years old, Suttle, a software salesman, ocean swimmer and trumpeter, forgot phone numbers and appointments. He 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.”

The improvement occurred just as Suttle returned to pursuing music, practicing hard and earning a seat in the newly formed Dana Point Symphony Orchestra. He, too, joined Symphony Irvine, and being a soloist forced him to learn difficult new music, including Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth symphonies, and Mahler’s Third, Fourth, and Fifth symphonies.

Two men, dressed in tuxedos and bow ties, blow a trumpet.

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

(Edie Van Huss)

“Plus, the art of performing these on stage in front of a packed house requires a lot of concentration,” said Suttle, who found she no longer needed to write out her daily schedule.

Selfishly I’d like to think that it was the music that changed things for Suttle, because I’ve been spending time on my guitar and learning Spanish. But without large studies over long periods, it’s hard to come to any solid conclusions about all of this. It could well be that for Suttle, having a specific goal and new social networks were as useful to him as playing music.

Daniel Levitin, a musician and neuroscientist who dismisses the benefits of puns in his book “Successful Aging,” told me that it’s a little easier to make the case for music. When I told him about Suttle, Levitin, who also wrote “This Is Your Brain on Music,” said decoding music he’d never played before was probably key, challenging his fingers to process complex signals from his brain.

“There is some possibility that physical and mental tasks together are beneficial,” Levitin said. “You can’t make a musical sound without moving something,” and this challenges the brain in ways that create “new layers of connectivity.” You won’t “avoid Alzheimer’s,” Levitin said, but you might “avoid its noticeable effects.”

One more argument for the benefits of music comes from a small short-term memory study that looked at adults in their 60s and 80s. Theodore Zanto, director of the Division of Neuroscience at UC San Francisco Neuroscape, told me that 20 participants played a word search game for 20 minutes each day on a tablet, and 20 more played a game that required them to remember and repeat a musical rhythm.

Participants took a digital facial recognition test before and after, testing their short-term memory skills. After the eight weeks of gaming, the word search group did not show any improvement, but the music group showed a 4% improvement.

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

Or through other tasks that challenge the mind or muscles.

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

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