I have always had a hard time with the “do crossword puzzles to stave off Alzheimer’s” mantra, and was thankful to overhear it being discussed recently on National Public Radio’s piece, Meditations, Digressions, From A Crossword Addict. Dean Olsher, author of the new book, From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords, found in the research for his book that one of the researchers who first established the correlation between crossword puzzles and mental acuity found the two were only marginally related.
[The researcher] never said that there was a cause-and-effect relationship. He said there was a correlation. Maybe it just so happens that people who are mentally fit have a tendency to want to do crosswords in the first place, explains Olsher.
Part of the appeal of the puzzles is the familiarity they breed. As Olsher points out, devoted crossword fans often find the same familiar language and references in their favorite puzzle. But, he says, “If you step out of your own dialect, and try a puzzle made by some other syndicator, edited by someone else, don’t you find that it’s alien territory?”
This is one of the reasons that Olsher dismisses the idea that crossword puzzles can stave off Alzheimer’s. “[Crosswords are] kind of the same activity over and over again. But the Alzheimer’s research shows that really what matters is novelty; Constantly exposing yourself to something new. That is much more likely, I think, to keep you sharp in the long run.”
Challenging your brain (and your body) is what keeps you mentally sharp. Olsher’s point is a good one, just doing daily crossword puzzles is not going give you the diversity of mental challenges that you need to reduce your risk. It eventually fails to become the mental diversity that you need. Pick up other things in addition. For a bigger challenge, learn another language, learn to play a saxophone, or go back to college.
Now, if we can just do something about the new mantra:
Bingo helps stave off disability in old age!