Linda Lewis Griffith

Build up the power of your mind

I’m a lifelong puzzle enthusiast. Crosswords, sudokus, jigsaws, cryptograms and jumbles are all grist for my enigmatic fervor.

But I may be doing more than playing games on my iPad. New findings show that I’m actually bulking up my brain.

In a study published in the Jan. 23, 2012, issue of the Archives of Neurology, scientists compared brain scans of 65 healthy seniors with scans from 10 Alzheimer’s patients and 11 people who were age 25. They also surveyed the participants about their lifestyle practices and how frequently they engaged in cognitively challenging activities throughout their lives.

The results showed that those who participated in more mind-stimulating activities, especially when they were young and middleaged, had less amyloid-beta protein buildup in their brains. Scientists believe protein buildup is a contributing factor to dementia. The elderly subjects who had spent the most time reading books and doing puzzles had brains that were comparable to the healthy controls that were 50 years younger.

A second study looked at 329 participants with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease and asked them how often they played games or did puzzles.

The data, presented at the International Alzheimer’s Association Conference in July, found that gamers and puzzlers scored higher on tests of memory, learning and information processing. They also had greater brain volume in areas associated with memory, one indication of increased resistance to brain damage and decline.

What’s so special about puzzles? Lots of things.

Jigsaw puzzles activate both hemispheres of the brain at the same time. They also stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a key player in movement, learning, attention, mood and memory. Crossword puzzles exercise verbal recall. All puzzles require concentration and problem-solving. Games encourage social interactions.

Of course, the results don’t necessarily prove cause and effect.

“It’s possible that sharper individuals may be more likely to engage in brain-stimulating activities, such as games and puzzles, in the first place,” cautioned Janet Sherman, PhD, chief neuropsychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Still, the numbers don’t lie. And there’s no down side. So sharpen your pencil and get puzzling!

ADD PUZZLES TO YOUR DAY

Check our puzzles on The Tribune’s entertainment page.

Check out puzzles online. Start with these free websites: http://www.syvum.com, http://www.braingle.com or http://www.billsgames.com. Or purchase an app. My favorite is the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.

Buy a book. Look for a collection of word searches, brainteasers, hidden pictures or sudokus.

Play games. Cribbage, bridge, Trivial Pursuit, poker and Parcheesi are challenging and fun to do with friends.

Set up a jigsaw puzzle in your living room. Choose patterns you find attractive and numbers of pieces that are appropriate. You want the experience to be pleasant and rewarding.

Don’t get frustrated. Find activities that are right for your skill level. If you get stumped, look up an answer or move on to the next one. You’ll get better the more you do it.

Make up your own games. Memorize the items on your shopping list. Spell words alphabetically (i.e. the word “puzzle” is spelled e-l-p-u-z-z). Count backward from 100 by 7s.

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