Crosswords, Crafts Linked to Dementia Prevention: Study

4 min read

July 17, 2023 – Older people who use computers, take classes, or do crossword puzzles may be enjoying activities that ultimately reduce their risk of dementia, a new study shows.

Previous research has linked routines, activities, and hobbies, which researchers call “lifestyle enrichment,” to better thinking skills and changes in the brain. 

Summarizing past studies, the authors wrote that “an enriched lifestyle with diverse leisure activities may reflect an optimistic personality and confer cognitive benefits by stimulating the growth of neurons and synapses and promoting well-being.”

This latest study sought to further find out if older people who do leisure activities or who have significant social networks have a lower dementia risk.

Published Friday in JAMA Network Open, the Australian-led team of researchers analyzed data from 10,318 people without major problems with their mental skills who were ages 70 years and older, and of whom 53% were women and 98% were white. They were followed for 10 years, with the follow-up period concluding in 2020. During that time, 3% of them got dementia.

“Individuals with dementia were older, a higher proportion were men, and they were more likely to have lower levels of physical activity and to be in poorer health than individuals without dementia,” the authors wrote.

One of the strengths of the new study was that it looked at 19 types of activities and social networks, and also adjusted for health status and education status, since people who take part in activities tend to be healthier. With this approach, the researchers said, they could see if specific types of activities were more helpful than others, and they could also see if there was a lower dementia risk regardless of someone’s existing health problems or education level.

Specifically, they found:

  • An 11% reduced risk of dementia among people who did adult literacy activities, such as writing letters, journaling, using a computer, and taking education classes
  • A 9% reduced risk of dementia among among people who did active mental activities, such as crossword puzzles or playing games, cards, or chess
  • A 7% reduced risk of dementia among people who said they paint or draw, or do craftwork, woodwork, or metalwork
  • A 7% reduced risk of dementia among people who said they read books, newspapers, or magazines, watch television, or listen to music or the radio

“These results suggest that engagement in adult literacy, creative art, and active and passive mental activities may help reduce dementia risk in late life,” the authors wrote. “In addition, these findings may guide policies for geriatric care and interventions targeting dementia prevention for older adults.”

The researchers found no link between reduced dementia risk and interpersonal networks, social activities, or external outings. Just 2.5% of people in the study did not have a close relative that they saw regularly, and 5% did not have at least one close friend that they saw regularly. 

The authors suggested that the protective benefits of adult literacy activities like writing letters and using a computer could stem from how those activities sparked their mental skills. 

“The cognitive stimulation from such activities can increase resilience against brain pathologies by increasing the number of neurons, enhancing synaptic activity, and permitting higher efficiency in using brain networks,” they wrote. “Adult literacy comprises class attendance, computer usage, and writing – all of which require the processing and storage of new information, which decelerates neurobiological aging and protects against dementia.”

They noted that previous research, including brain imaging, concluded that the interactive nature of computer use activates multiple brain regions.

The protective benefit of mental activities like crossword puzzles and games that this latest study found is also consistent with past research.

“Many of these activities are competitive in nature and involve complex strategies and problem-solving. They use a variety of cognitive domains, including episodic memory, visuospatial skills, calculation, executive function, attention, and concentration,” the researchers wrote. They noted that crossword puzzles also use language in a way that triggers word and knowledge networks in the brain.

The CDC says more than 5 million people in the U.S. have dementia, and that number is expected to increase to 14 million by 2060. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which progresses from mild memory loss to impacts so severe that people can no longer carry a conversation or respond to the environment. The Alzheimer’s Association says that while there is no definitive cause of the disease, more studies are showing that lifestyle changes can impact a person’s risk of having Alzheimer’s, and they often lower the risk of other health problems like heart disease and diabetes.