Yesterday morning I arrived to visit Angela, one of the three ladies with Alzheimer's I volunteer to visit each week. I found her sitting at her beautiful, ornate dining room table, which was overflowing with books and art supplies. Dressed in a pale pink sweat suit, she was deeply absorbed in a crossword puzzle, which she was filling in with her ever so pale handwriting.
I often find her engaged in this activity. I don't know if she works the puzzles because it's something she's always enjoyed or if a friend or family member encourages her to do them to keep her brain active.
Martha, another of "My Ladies," can also often be found deep in the process of doing a crossword. She confirms that it was something she previously enjoyed. She adds that, "my friend, Emily, who's in charge of me, brings me books of puzzles." Mostly easy ones. Martha comments that the New York Times crosswords are "nearly danged impossible to complete."
Hundreds of articles have mentioned that keeping the brain active, including working crossword puzzles, playing cards or learning new things, can help ward off Alzheimer's or slow it's decline in a person who already has the illness.
For example, there's a brief entry about this topic on the Alzheimer's Association's website. It says, "Research has found that keeping the brain active seems to increase its vitality and may build its reserves of brain cells and connections. You could even generate new brain cells."
The entry continues by saying that people with a higher level of education appear to be protected against Alzheimer's, concluding that "people who keep their minds active throughout their lives have lower amounts of a protein that forms the beta amyloid plaques, which are a hallmark of the disease."
I might mention in passing that my personal experience hasn't borne this out. As I recount in my award-winning book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy, Ed, my beloved Romanian life partner of 30 years, had two PhD's and a law degree. Nonetheless, he developed Alzheimer's. What's more, three of his highly educated colleagues also had the illness.
And I recently found a report stating that this there's no evidence to support the commonly held belief that crossword puzzles forestall Alzheimer's. An article published on the University of North Carolina School of Medicine website says, "Many people believe doing crossword puzzles helps prevent Alzheimer's disease, but there's no scientific evidence to support this idea."
In this article, Philip Sloane, MD, MPH, a professor of family medicine at the university, said, "Unfortunately, there is no strong evidence that such activities actually prevent the disease. I'd be surprised if it actually makes a difference."
A WebMD entry on this topic, "Brain Exercises and Dementia," is a little more positive, not denying or confirming the link, but merely stating, "We need more studies to know for sure."
Given the conflicting reports I decided to take a look at the scientific evidence. I found several articles describing various recent research studies. Among these was an excellent, comprehensive article in the journal Clinical Correlations, the online medical journal of NYU Langone Medical Center. It reviewed 11 different research studies on this topic.
After reviewing each scientific study, the author presents this as the bottom line: "Leisure activities such as crossword puzzles, card games, and reading provide an avenue to stimulate the mind, thus delaying the onset of dementia."
The article concludes by stating, "These activities should be recommended to our healthy elderly patients. In the future, targeted computerized cognitive training in the form of video games may accompany a daily aspirin in our armamentarium as we strive to prevent disease."
So get out your pencils and go buy yourself some crossword puzzles. There's now clear scientific evidence that it actually does help.