Are Puzzles Good For Your Brain?

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It has been claimed, for many years, that doing puzzles is good for your brain. Whether it is a jigsaw puzzle, crossword, sudoku, riddles or other mind flexing mental puzzle the message has been clear – Puzzles are good for your brain.  But is this true – Are puzzles good for your brain?

Understandably the mass media has jumped on the idea that puzzles are good for brain health – especially in this age of increasing levels of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Rather unsurprisingly this claim has spawned a whole industry of brain training games that use puzzles to exercise the brain.

Now for a lot of us, as we get older, the idea of doing something that might help to fight off the likes of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is an attractive thought. But is there any truth to the claim that puzzles are good for your brain? Is there any actual scientific evidence out there to support these grand claims? Those of us who are long term fans of puzzles, of all kinds, are probably hoping that there is just such supporting evidence.  We therefore thought that it would be a good idea to have a search to see if we could find any evidence to answer the question are puzzles good for your brain?  Let’s start with looking at the evidence for jigsaw puzzles.

Are Puzzles good for your brain?

It has long been cited that jigsaw puzzles in particular are excellent tools for brain training and improving fine motor skills. The theory goes that the manipulation of the small pieces of a jigsaw are good for hand eye co-ordination.  Furthermore recognising and remembering the complex shapes and colours of the pieces, to get them to fit together, helps to develop memory and spatial awareness. By doing jigsaw puzzles on a regular basis it is argued that you are engaging the brain in an activity which protects it against the effects of aging. The difficulty is correlating this with actual data supporting the theory.

A quick search of the internet shows that there are many articles and blog posts out there that cite the Macarthur Study.  They all suggest that this study provides evidence that doing a jigsaw puzzle is good for you. The study is actually rather difficult to find but, after a little bit of searching, we found that the study was first published in 1995 in the journal of Psychology and Aging. The study, which was rather snappily titled “Predictors of cognitive change in older persons: MacArthur studies of successful aging”, took healthy people in their middle ages and tracked changes to their cognitive abilities as they aged. What they found was that there were three factors that distinguished those people, that exhibited a higher functioning in the group being studied, from the rest of the general population.  Those three factors were:

  1. They were consistently more physically active. For example they took daily walks or other forms of physical exercise on a regular basis.
  2. They remained mentally active, that is they did crossword puzzles, took part in hobbies and crafts, interacted in social activities and generally did not just collapse in front of the TV.
  3. They had a definite personality trait that was always positive and met challenges head on rather than wilting under the pressure of life.

Sadly, although the study pointed at keeping mentally active as a key to better brain aging, it did not categorically link doing jigsaw puzzles to preserving better brain health. Therefore, despite the countless articles out there extolling the virtues of jigsaw puzzles, they alone are not solely responsible for maintaining good brain health in old age.  However, doing puzzles, brain teasers, Sudoku, Crosswords etc, that kept the brain active did help!  The first piece of evidence that helps us to answer the question are puzzles are good for your brain – so far so good.

Next up in our evidence hunt to answer the question are puzzles good for your brain is the claim that puzzles can help to delay the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Puzzles and Alzheimer’s Disease.

The evidence is a bit conflicting when it comes to understanding the impact of puzzles on conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

A recent study supported the idea that a lifetime of puzzling was a good indicator of brain health in later life especially with respect to conditions like Alzheimer’s. The researchers compared brain scans of 65 healthy older people, with an average age of 76, with scans of 10 patients with Alzheimer’s disease and 11 young people who were around 25 years old. At the same time they surveyed the participants on their lifestyle and, in particular, on how frequently they engaged in cognitively challenging activities throughout their lives, in other words did they do puzzles.

What the researchers were looking for was the presence of the beta amyloid protein, a major component of the amyloid plaque that is a marker of Alzheimer’s. What they found was that those older people who had participated in more mind stimulating activities, especially during their early and middle years, had the lowest levels of the beta amyloid protein. The conclusion they drew was that the more we indulged in mind stretching activities, doing puzzles, the lower the level of beta amyloid protein and therefore the lower the risk of Alzheimer’s.  However, it has also been suggested that this effect can only be seen in those people who have a heightened risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

We can therefore conclude that there is some evidence to support the idea that regularly doing puzzles can help to protect your brain against the ravages of aging.  But the jury is still divided as to the benefits of puzzles in preventing the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

There is, however, another interesting study that we found whilst researching this article that looked at the effect of puzzles, and especially jigsaw puzzles, on the developing brain.


Puzzles and Spatial Ability

The study “Early puzzle play: a predictor of pre-schoolers’ spatial transformation skill” demonstrated that early interaction with jigsaw puzzles was of benefit to children. The study took a group of children and observed them at home for 90 minutes every 4 months between the ages of 2 and 4 years. When the children were aged 4 years and 6 months they were tested on how well they completed a spatial task involving mental transformation of 2 dimensional shapes. They found that those children who had been exposed to jigsaw puzzles performed better at these tasks than the children who were not exposed to jigsaw puzzles.

Now this may well not turn children into the next Einstein but spatial awareness has been linked to improved mathematical performance and eventual expertise in Science, Technology and Engineering.  In an article “Why do spatial abilities predict mathematical performance” published in 2014 in Developmental Science researchers found that “spatial skills have also been shown to rely on neuronal networks partially shared with mathematics”.  Therefore if spatial ability helps to predict mathematical performance and exposure to puzzles at an early age helps improve spatial ability the evidence is clear – Puzzles and especially jigsaw puzzles are good for the developing brain.

Are puzzles good for your brain – Our Conclusion

We may be biased in this, let’s face it we run a website about puzzles!  However, we think that it is acceptable to conclude that doing puzzles is good for brain health.  In some cases the evidence might be conflicting, especially in the area of Alzheimer’s research.  But in other areas, certainly in the field of spatial awareness, the evidence is strong and growing – Doing puzzles is good for your brain.

Although there is conflicting evidence out there, one thing is certain – doing puzzles is not going to do you any harm.  Therefore when it comes to the question of are puzzles good for your brain we can only conclude that there can only be a benefit to regularly doing puzzles.

To give your brain a workout check out our Daily Puzzles page.  Here you can find puzzle challenges, some easy, some hard, that will get your brain firing on all cylinders.



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