Puzzles for Brain Health

21 February 2023

Older adults are often concerned about keeping their mental acuity sharp, or not losing memories too quickly.  Studies are conducted to see if computer-based games and other exercises can help slow the progress of dementia or to simply stimulate functions to be better at activities of daily living, including memory (remembering names, for example).

The general concensus is that as long as an individual does something to stimulate the thought process, it is good.  That includes gaming, watching documentaries, community involvement, etc.  The idea is to continually challenge the brain function.

The trick is to find something you like that will push you to think more but not create frustration.  This can be some type of conversation or discussion group, working puzzles or brain teasers, reading, or whatever makes you happy and stimulated.  The goal is to find the activity that will cause the brain to produce dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that stimulates pleasure and satisfaction.  Also, as you explore tasks that you are new to, it can help build new synapses in the brain, which are used for cell communication.

In 2019 a study looked at the connection between word puzzles and cognitive abilities.  They tested 19,000 adults between the ages of 50 and 93.  Those who never did word puzzles, or only dabbled occasionally, performed more poorly in areas like memory and attention.

One of the most recent crazes is Wordle.  Created during the pandemic, it is available online for free.  It is a word-based guessing game where the player needs to determine the five-letter word of the day within six attempts.  The player starts with a single word and gets electronic feedback about whether the letters in the initial word are in the secret word and if so, where they will be placed. There is a logic to the game if you can figure it out.

Many players find it just plain fun.  They will share results online or in person with others who also enjoy the game.  Bragging rights come when the puzzle is solved in only two tries.  Tips and advice are readily available like using “adieu” as a starting point.  Hint: that’s because it has so many vowels.

For others it is frustrating and just too stressful.  That’s okay.  If Wordle isn’t your choice, you might consider a numbers-based challenge like Sudoku.  There are other options like Word Search, crosswords at any number of levels, and quizzes dealing with various topics on Bing.  Don’t rule out televised versions like Lingo, Jeopardy!, and Name That Tune.

There are other advantages to word games besides trying to delay dementia.  These include an increased vocabulary.  A greater vocabulary will help individuals become more organized in speaking and be better able to express opinions, not to mention understanding what someone else is trying to say.  It should also improve spelling.  They can also be great tools to increase concentration.

So, in addition to improving memory and cognitive skills, it can become a social interaction that will reduce boredom and provide a sense of accomplishment.  Try a few word or numeric puzzles and see if anything catches your fancy.

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