Which Games Are Best for the Brain?

November 30, 2022

Many people do crossword puzzles and various brain-training games in the hopes of keeping their memory sharp. But is one type of brain puzzle better than the others when it comes to boosting brain health?

In older people with memory problems, crossword puzzles may have an edge over other brain boosters, a new study found. In a head-to-head comparison lasting up to 18 months in adults with mild cognitive impairment, a brain disorder that can progress to full-blown Alzheimer’s disease, crossword puzzles led to greater improvements in memory and brain health than other types of brain-training games.

“This is the first study to document both short-term and longer-term benefits for home-based crossword puzzles training compared to another intervention,” said study author Dr. D. P. Devanand, professor of psychiatry and neurology at Columbia University. “The results are important in light of difficulty in showing improvement with interventions in mild cognitive impairment.”

For this very small study, published in NEJM Evidence, researchers and Columbia and Duke University enrolled 107 men and women with mild cognitive impairment. They ranged in age from 55 to 95.

Half were randomly assigned to do web-based crossword puzzles at home for four days a week, for 30 minutes at each session. The crossword puzzles were of moderate difficulty, equivalent to the kinds of puzzles found on Thursdays in the New York Times (those puzzles get more difficult as the week progresses).

The others engaged in a variety of computerized brain games designed to exercise memory, speed, flexibility and problem solving. The games and puzzles were from Lumos Labs, the creators of the Lumosity brain-training program.

Participants were given memory assessments and MRI brain scans after 12 weeks, and again a year-and-a-half after starting the study. Friends and family members also reported on their day-to-day functioning.

The researchers found that those who did crossword puzzles scored higher on memory tests than those who played cognitive games at both the 12-week and the 78-week assessments. After 78 weeks, those who did crossword puzzles showed more improvements in functional skills and also had less brain shrinkage, a measure of brain health. Any benefits were slight, but the “indications of brain shrinkage on MRI suggests that the effects are clinically meaningful,” Dr. Devanand said.

The authors were surprised by the results, because they differed from those of an earlier study of cognitively healthy adults aged 18 to 80. That study found that brain games from Lumos Labs, played for 15 minutes daily over 10 weeks, provided superior brain benefits to doing computerized crossword puzzles.

One reason that crossword puzzles may have had advantages in this study, the authors say, is that it looked at older men and women with mild cognitive impairment. Most of these seniors would have long been familiar with how to do crossword puzzles, even from their childhoods, so it would have been easy for them to hit the ground running. They would have been less familiar with many of the computerized brain twisters involved in the study, so may have had more trouble getting to a point where they felt at ease doing them.

Computerized brain twisters, on the other hand, may be more familiar to younger people who tend to be familiar with computers and gaming. They may also be easier to learn for older adults without cognitive problems. Hence, the brain games may have advantages for those with normal memory and thinking skills.

Regardless of the type of games played, the results add to growing evidence that intellectual stimulation of any kind may be good for the brain. One large review of 22 different studies found that complex mental activities like reading books, playing checkers or solving crosswords or other puzzles reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia by 46 percent over a 7-year period. Another study of 2,800 cognitively healthy people found that a variety of brain games led to improvements in memory and thinking tests, with some improvements maintained after 10 years.

So play away. Whether it’s a crossword puzzle, Wordle or another brain challenge, it’s probably doing your brain some good, and it’s certainly not doing anything bad.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.  

Source: D. P. Devanand, M.D.; Terry E. Goldverg, Ph.D.; Min Qian, Ph.D.; et al: “Computerized Games versus Crosswords Training in Mild Cognitive Impairment.” NEJM Evidence, October 27, 2022


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