(To learn more about activities that really do protect cognition, see the BeBrainFit article here: 36 Ways to Improve Your Memory)
OK, I just need to come out and admit this. I’ve got an attitude problem. In the work I do, I continually bad-mouth crossword puzzles and other so-called “brain games” like Sudoku or Words with Friends.
And I just got called out on it. I got an email from a gentleman named Rodrigo, and he gave me a bit of a scolding. He thinks that I’m way too harsh on crossword puzzles, and he thinks I need to adjust my attitude.
And you know what? He’s right. I do think I’ve been unfair to crossword puzzles and the people who do them, people like Rodrigo — probably like you — and I owe them an apology. So that’s what I am here to offer today.
Hi, I’m Tony Dearing, of GoCogno.com, the website for people with mild cognitive impairment.
I do these brain health videos every week, and no one has to guess what my attitude toward crosswords and brain games in general has been. Right there, sitting on the homepage of my website is an article, “The false promise of brain games (and what actually works instead!).” It was published in May 2017 and month after month, it remains one of the best-read articles on GoCogno.com.
What I wanted people to understand is that when it comes to defending your cognition and protecting yourself from the risk of dementia, these kind of games don’t offer that protection.
Dr. Richard Isaacson, of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic, told me, “You can do all the Sudoku you want, but you’ll just get better at Sudoku. It won’t have a spillover effect that will help you over the long-term.’’
Sarah Lock, executive director of the Global Council on Brain Health, said to me: “These games are fun to do, but if you think they are the panacea, you are sadly mistaken.”
Jacquelyn James, of Boston College, says: “We used to think that doing crossword puzzles was the best way to keep our cognitive ability alive and developing, but we’re seeing that it takes more than that.”
So I’m not out on a limb here. But the longer I’ve been doing this, and just dealing with people with mild cognitive impairment who are educating themselves and out there doing the work to protect their cognition decline, the more I’m realizing that I’ve got the messaging wrong here.
My attitude has been overly negative and dismissive and actually kind of insulting to people like Rodrigo who do crossword puzzles and enjoy them.
He send me an email telling me that I am too down on crossword puzzles. He knows they’re not the cure for MCI, but he does them and he says seem to help him. In part, he says, “A while back I started not being able to recall some words that I knew and that was so frustrating!” He says doing crossword puzzles helps him “remember SOME words that I may not be able to recall at that moment.”
And really, that’s the key. Two, three, four years ago, the reason that brain health experts were being so strident about this is because there seemed to be a prevailing public misperception that things like crossword puzzles were the best thing you could do. It was like, “Oh, if you’re worried about dementia, go home and do a New York Times crossword puzzle.”
At one point, I was talking to a woman whose mother had MCI, and she told me that she couldn’t get her mother to do any of the things her mom really needed to do. She said her mom would just go home every night and eat a Big Mac and do the New York Times crossword.
And that’s like, “Oh God no, please, no.” Really, that’s like having someone say to you, “Yeah, my mom is really worried about having her home broken into, so what she’s doing to defend herself against burglars is to leave her door unlocked and put a sign on it that says, ‘The money is under the mattress.'”
You can’t leave the door unlocked for dementia. You need to put a deadbolt on it. You need to nail that damn door shut. Crossword puzzles don’t do that for you. But there are things that can.
But I think you know that by now. You’re learning what those things are, and you’re doing them, and I applaud you for that and I promise you that I’m going to stop haranguing you about crossword puzzles.
Rodrigo got it exactly right. He ended his email by saying: “… I know there are many other ways that can be used to “expand” the mind: …combing my hair or brushing my teeth with my ‘other’ hand, taking a different route to go somewhere, etc. …..”
That’s just spot on. You protect your cognition by doing things that grow new neural pathways in the brain. That helps other parts of your brain compensate for the part of your brain where MCI is causing something to go wrong.
Doing something you already know how to do over and over again, and just getting a little bit better at it, doesn’t build those neural connections. For that, you need to learn something new, something you don’t already know how to do. Like learning to play an instrument. Or a new language. Or knitting or playing fantasy football or figuring out how to fix a light switch.
That’s what helps lock the door. The best list of these kinds of activities that I’ve seen can be found in a post on the website BeBrainFit. Go down to the section called “Boost Your Memory with Mental Workouts,” and review tips no. 13 through 23.
So that’s your homework for this week. Check out the post, find one thing new and novel that looks interesting to you, and try it.
After that, if you want to sit down and reward yourself by doing a crossword puzzle or Sudoku, go for it, as long as you’re doing other things as well. So there. You’ve never needed my permission to do crosswords, but now you have it anyway.
You also my invitation to join me again next week. Until then, be kind to your mind.