Crosswords can't save your brain

Will it help if we keep our minds sharp with plenty of puzzles?
18 December 2018

Interview with 

Duncan Astle, Cambridge University


A newspaper with a crossword


We’re often counselled to “use it or lose it”, particularly when it comes to keeping your mind sharp as yet get older; sayings like “a crossword a day keeps dementia at bay,” are common. But is it true? A new study published in the British Medical Journal says not. Chris Smith spoke to psychologist Duncan Astle, he wasn’t involved in the study directly, but he does work on similar research projects at Cambridge University and he’s been taking at look at the findings...

Duncan -  It's been done by a group in Aberdeen led by Roger Staff at the Institute of Medical Sciences and with his colleagues...

Chris - And what were they seeking to find out?

Duncan - Well they recruited a group of 64 year olds and then they followed those individuals over the next 15 years seeing each person five times each within that time period, and each time we saw them they measured different cognitive skills like short term memory and attention skills and they also conducted a questionnaire which they called the intellectual engagement questionnaire. It asks questions about do you enjoy reading? Do you enjoy problem solving crosswords? Are you curious, for instance do you want to learn about new things like social media? And what they wanted to explore was how the relationship between these two different types of measures changes over that 15 year period.

Chris - And does this give them the power, critically, to control for people who start off from a good point because if taking the idea that, if I do lots of crosswords this will defer dementia. If I'm starting from a higher point then another person, it may just be that I was always good at doing crosswords and I'll just keep doing crosswords and I'll have a low risk of dementia anyway versus someone who doesn't do many crosswords and starts from a low point and the dementias manifest more obviously sooner.

Duncan -  So that's a very good question. So the perennial problem with studying cognitive ageing is that it takes a very long time to study it. And so you often end up studying people over a relatively short period of time, so 15 years sounds like a long time but of course and within the age span that's even that's relatively short period of time. But there's something very special about these individuals and that's that all of them took part in a study in 1947 when they were all 11 years old and as part of that study they conducted a cognitive assessment, so they had this very good baseline of cognitive ability for many years before the study even started. What they initially hoped to see was that the trajectory of decline in the cognitive skills would be altered by the degree of intellectual engagement from the questionnaire. So those people who are more intellectually engaged might show a reduced decline in cognitive skills as they get older but what they found actually wasn't that the responses on the questionnaire moderate the rate of decline. They just found that people who were more intellectually engaged had better cognitive skills overall and everybody declines at roughly the same rate.

Chris - So the whole idea of Use It or Lose It is therefore it's a myth. It's not gonna work that way.

Duncan - It's not so much that it's a myth. It's the myth part I guess is is about the trajectory. So, what this study and some other previous studies have shown is that essentially what predicts good cognitive health in older age is good cognitive health throughout the lifespan, essentially those people just start off further from some kind of functional threshold so they have further to drop before they start experiencing cognitive difficulties.

Chris -  Does this mean then that if you've reached old age and then you've never been that, well, the sharpest tool in the drawer is too late or are you saying actually you've got to make the most of what you have got.

Duncan  - I think you probably have to make the most of what you have got. So it's very hard to demonstrate that doing crosswords and so on will cause you to have better cognitive health. But it certainly can't hurt. But we do know that there are lots of other factors that are very good predictors of cognitive health in older ageing, so for instance having good cardiovascular health is a great predictor of having good cognitive health.

Chris -  So lead a healthy life from the get go and have the best likelihood of preserving your intellect into old age. The bottom line isn't it.

Duncan -  Having good cognitive health in older age starts young.


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