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Can a puzzle a day keep dementia away?

Challenge your brain with puzzles and mentally stimulating new activities.

Woman and man doing a puzzle

The words ‘dementia risk reduction’ are slowly appearing more regularly in the media and in conversation. It is a huge change from the pervasive ‘nothing can be done for dementia’ rhetoric of the past.

The World Health Organisation lists 12 ways to improve brain health and reduce the risk of dementia. Among them is keeping socially active and engaged and challenging your brain with puzzles and mentally stimulating new activities.

Challenging your brain to reduce the risk of dementia

The ‘use it or lose it’ idea is taking hold, such that the brain will suffer from lack of stimulation unless we engage in mentally stimulating activity. But what does the science say? Will a puzzle a day keep dementia away?

A study US published in 2021 by Wilson and colleagues followed 1,093 older people over 6.8 years, conducting detailed annual monitoring of cognitive health and measuring the amount of cognitively stimulating activity participants undertook. No participants had dementia at the start of the study, and 457 people were diagnosed with Alzheimer type dementia during the study. The researchers found people who maintained higher levels of stimulating cognitive activities showed delay in developing dementia by up to five years, and concluded that keeping cognitively active in old age may delay the onset of dementia.

What types of activities are most helpful?

An Australian study involving 10, 318 people aged over 70, Wu and colleagues found more frequent engagement with adult literacy activities like education classes, using a computer, writing letters or journals, and in active mental activities like playing games, cards or chess and doing crosswords and other puzzles was associated with reduced risk of developing dementia.

Another study in the UK enrolled 146,651 participants, aged 60 or older who did not have dementia. They followed up for 11.8 years regularly asking participants to report the time they spent watching television or using a computer. Regardless of the amount of physical activity undertaken by participants, researchers found greater TV watching time was associated with great risk of developing dementia. While computer use was shown to decrease risk, when they examined individuals TV and computer use together, risk of dementia was elevated. The researchers suggested that limiting ‘cognitively passive’ activities like TV watching and engaging in activities that challenge your brain  are promising ways to reduce dementia risk.

Can computerised brain training help?

Numerous computer-based ‘brain training’ programs developed in recent years purport to keep the brain active. Studies demonstrate that brain training will produce improvements in the tasks that are practiced, but there is still scant evidence that brain training improves overall cognition.

Key messages from these and other studies suggests that overall, mentally stimulating exercises including puzzles, are beneficial for brain health. However, to derive the best stimulation for your brain the Global Council on Brain health recommend choosing activities that provide “novelty, variety, and a high-level of engagement and mental challenge, while also being enjoyable.”

For more information, visit the Forward with Dementia website section on Supporting Wellbeing for people with dementia  and for carers. These pages provide comprehensive information on exercise, physical health, diet rest, mental and physical activity to keep your brain healthy.

NSW Seniors Card offers free daily crosswords on their website so bookmark the page and challenge your brain every day!

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