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Are crossword puzzles good for your brain?

Crossword puzzles have long been a popular pastime, loved by millions of people around the world. Many people work on crosswords to pass time or for entertainment, but could regularly solving crossword puzzles actually provide cognitive benefits? In recent years, a growing body of research has explored whether engaging in crossword puzzles may help enhance certain aspects of brain health and cognition. This article reviews the evidence surrounding the effects of crossword puzzles on the brain.

What skills do crossword puzzles engage?

Crossword puzzles engage a wide range of cognitive skills and abilities. Some key aspects of cognition utilized in crossword puzzles include:

  • Language: Crosswords heavily engage language skills, vocabulary knowledge, and verbal reasoning ability.
  • Memory: Short-term and long-term memory processes are required to recall clues, themes, and previously solved answers.
  • General knowledge: Solving clues often requires drawing on one’s general knowledge about the world.
  • Visual-spatial skills: Visualizing how words fit spatially across and down grids engages visual-spatial processing.
  • Critical thinking: Logical reasoning and critical analysis of clues are needed to deduce answers.
  • Working memory: Crosswords require holding clues and potential answers in mind while solving.
  • Concentration: Focused, sustained attention is necessary to systematically work through the grid.

Engaging these cognitive domains through the interactive, challenging format of crosswords may confer neurological benefits that could support brain health. Let’s review some of the key research that has examined this.

Crossword experience correlates with preserved cognition

Some observational studies have found correlations between engaging in mentally stimulating activities like crosswords and maintaining cognitive function into older age.

For example, a 2011 study published in Age and Ageing followed over 700 seniors for 8 to 10 years. Participants completed questionnaires about how frequently they engaged in various mentally engaging leisure activities at the beginning of the study. The results showed that engaging in mental activities like crossword puzzles and card games at least twice per week was associated with better maintenance of cognitive function at follow-up assessments.

Similar correlational results have been found linking frequent crossword puzzle use with reduced memory decline. A 2008 study in The Journals of Gerontology followed over 200 seniors and found that completing crosswords over four times per week was associated with better memory function 5 years later compared to doing one crossword per week.

While such observational studies do not prove crosswords prevent cognitive decline, they provide preliminary evidence that regular crossword puzzle use may correlate with preserved mental sharpness into older age. The cognitive stimulation used in solving crossword clues may help strengthen key brain networks and abilities.

Crossword training enhances frontal lobe brain function

Going beyond observational studies, several experiments have directly tested the effects of crossword puzzle training on cognition and brain function.

For example, a team of British researchers published a study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2016 examining how 4-6 weeks of daily computerized crossword training affected cognition and brain activity in healthy older adults.

The crossword training group showed significantly improved performance on tests of working memory and attention compared to an active control group. Functional magnetic resonance imaging scans revealed the crossword group also had increased prefrontal cortex activation while completing challenging cognitive tasks – indicating improved functioning of key brain regions underlying higher thinking skills.

Enhanced prefrontal activation suggests the crossword training strengthened cognitive control abilities – the goal-directed focus and integrated brain processes needed for complex thinking tasks. The researchers concluded engaging in mentally challenging leisure activities like crosswords may boost under-activated frontal brain regions in older age.

Crosswords and brain connectivity

In addition to localized brain activation patterns, there is evidence crossword puzzles may alter neural connectivity – the synchronized networks between distributed brain areas that underlie efficient cognition.

A 2018 study in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society used MRI scans to compare the white matter microstructure of the brains of experienced older crossword solvers versus those who did not engage in puzzles or similar hobbies.

The experienced solvers demonstrated greater white matter integrity in frontal, parietal and temporal lobe regions critical for vocabulary, reasoning and memory. Greater white matter connectivity between distributed cortical areas could underpin enhanced processing efficiency and cognitive performance.

Overall, these connectivity differences provide further neurological evidence for how consistent mentally stimulating activities like crosswords may contribute to maintained cognition in aging.

Cognitive reserves against Alzheimer’s disease

Some research has specifically explored whether engaging in intellectually stimulating hobbies like crosswords could reduce odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease – the most common cause of dementia characterized by progressive neurodegeneration and brain atrophy.

The cognitive reserve hypothesis proposes mentally stimulating activities build up more efficient, resilient brain networks that could delay onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms and pathology. To test this, studies have analyzed whether crossword habits associate with reduced Alzheimer’s likelihood and later age of dementia diagnosis.

For instance, a 2005 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal followed over 700 Catholic clergy members and found that engaging in crosswords and other puzzles at least four times per week was linked to significantly lower Alzheimer’s disease risk.

Another study in Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition in 2011 demonstrated that older adults without dementia who regularly played puzzle games like crosswords were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about five years later on average than those who did not frequently play puzzles.

While not definitive, these case-controlled observational studies provide some evidence regular crossword puzzling could help build up cognitive reserves protecting against Alzheimer’s onset – consistent with the mental stimulation hypothesis.

Brain training for focus and memory

Mentally stimulating leisure activities like crosswords may not just be protective, but could also serve as effective tools for proactively training cognitive skills like memory, attention and reasoning.

For example, a one-year randomized trial published in Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition had older adults engage in crossword puzzle training for up to an hour a day on electronic tablets. Compared to passive tablet use controls, the crossword group showed significantly improved focus and concentration on cognitive tests – highlighting training benefits for attention.

Another study in the Journal of American Academy of Neurology in 2013 had healthy adults complete crossword training over 6 weeks. It found over 75% of participants improved on memory tests after crossword training – actually performing at levels comparable to 5 years younger. Such findings point to potential short-term training benefits of crosswords for strengthening struggling cognitive skills.

Overall, crossword puzzles appear to engage and demand a broad range of key cognitive faculties, making them a multifaceted brain training tool that could enhance capacities like memory, focus and speed of processing.

Boosts to mood and well-being

In addition to cognitive benefits, regularly engaging in intellectually stimulating hobbies like crossword puzzles may also confer advantages for mental health and well-being.

A 2013 study in PLOS ONE followed over 20,000 healthy seniors for two years. Engaging in cognitive recreational activities including crosswords and puzzles was associated with enhancements in several aspects of mental well-being: reduced anxiety and depression symptoms, greater optimism and emotional stability.

Such mental health benefits may arise both from the intrinsic reward and satisfaction of mastering challenging puzzles, as well as associated boosts to self-efficacy and confidence from maintaining skills. Strengthened social bonds may also play a role – sharing and working on crosswords with others could enhance engagement and motivation.

Regular crossword practice can become an enjoyable habitual routine and intellectually engaging lifestyle activity with well-rounded benefits for cognition, mental sharpness and personal wellness.

Potential limitations of crossword puzzle benefits

While the research reviewed above points to a range of potential neurological and cognitive benefits, there are some limitations to keep in mind:

  • Transfer effect: Performance gains on crossword tasks themselves does not necessarily transfer to improved functioning on real-world tasks.
  • Moderation: As with any hobby, excessive time spent on crosswords could displace other valuable activities and engagement.
  • Individual differences: Genetics and other lifestyle factors likely influence the cognitive gains any one person might derive from crosswording.
  • Cause and effect: Observational studies cannot prove crosswords themselves directly cause cognitive benefits – underlying factors associated with motivation to do crosswords regularly may drive effects.

More research is still needed to understand nuances of how crossword regimens could optimize and translate cognitive gains. But the evidence so far suggests beneficial relationships between moderate, regular crossword puzzling and maintaining neurocognitive vitality.

Should you add crosswords to your routine?

Based on the research discussed above, here are some key points to consider about potentially incorporating crossword puzzles into your regular routine to aid brain health:

  • Cognitive exercise: Crosswords offer activity for under-worked frontal lobe regions that support executive functions like attention, planning and memory.
  • Training effects: With regular practice, skills like recall memory, processing speed, and focus can improve.
  • Brain connectivity: Crossword activity strengthens neural networks supporting efficient cognition.
  • Cognitive reserves: Regular puzzling may help build reserves protecting against cognitive decline.
  • Mental well-being: Crosswords are an engaging, rewarding hobby that can reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Overall, for adults looking to keep their minds engaged and cognitively sharp, taking up crossword puzzles is a fun, accessible lifestyle choice supported by scientific evidence for neurological benefits. Moderately incorporating crosswords into your free time cognitive fitness regimen may help boost brain health and vitality.


In summary, a growing base of research provides support for the cognitive benefits of crossword puzzles. Studies point to enhanced cognitive skills like memory, focus and reasoning in both the short and long-term from engaging in crosswords regularly. Possible neurological mechanisms include strengthened connectivity between brain networks supporting executive functions and building up of cognitive reserves protecting against age-related decline. Though some limitations exist, crossword puzzles offer a versatile, engaging means to put one’s brain to work. For many, crosswords are more than just a hobby – they are a scientifically-supported activity for enhancing and preserving neurocognitive health across the lifespan.