When I was writing my book "Can't Remember What I Forgot," the seminal question that friends and acquaintances asked me was whether doing crossword puzzles was really going to help them avoid Alzheimer's and other kinds of cognitive decline. Now that the book is out, that's the question that journalists are most keen to ask as well. It's easy to understand why people think crosswords are protective: a number of years ago a famous study of nuns was published that showed that those who lived the longest without cognitive impairment were also those who did the crossword puzzle every day. To readers, it looked like cause and effect, but of course it was only a correlation, and correlations don't "prove" anything, though they're provocative. In fact, in this case, the correlation could have come from a different cause altogether: that those nuns who did the crossword puzzle were always more verbally and mentally endowed, which is why they were drawn to the challenge of the puzzle in the first place, and that endowment was what kept them from succumbing to cognitive decline. (This hypothesis was given a boost when it was found, on autopsy, that some of those mentally fit, crossword puzzle playing sisters had some of the physiological signs of Alzheimer's, like plaques in the brain.)
The crossword puzzle question raises a bigger one: can you exercise your brain in such a way to hold AD and cognitive decline at bay. It's this question that is driving what's fast becoming its own industry, as online brain trainers, and software, and machines like Nintendo's Brain Age, and brain gymn programs at workout gyms proliferate. The short answer is that because the brain is "plastic"--that is, able to change in response to experience and learnng--it can be aided by brain exercises. This is the premise of the kinds of cognitive rehab exercises designed for stroke victims. But what kind of exercises, and for how long, and when? This new "industry" is unregulated. How do you know what works, and how do you even know what it means for these exercises to be working?
When I was writing my book, I joined a number of brain gyms, bought memory training book, software and gadgets. Right now I'm spending 45 minutes a day going through Posit Science's Brain Fitness Program. In the next few weeks I'm going to be writing about these products and how they can or don't help. As for the crosswords, well, the bottomline comes from another correlation study. It was looking for connections between lifestyle activities like reading, dancing, crosswords and bingo, and a life without significant cognitive declne. What the researchers found was that those who did crosswords were just as likely to get AD as those who did not. Still, as one researcher told me: "There's nothing wrong with doing crosswords. If they make you happy, do them, you're brain will get a nice ping of dopamine and you'll feel good." Nothing wrong with that.