Web-based Crosswords Beat Video Games at Slowing Memory Loss

If you love crossword puzzles, it probably doesn’t matter if they’re improving your brain in any way. Fun is fun, right? But a new study has found that adults with mild cognitive decline show less brain shrinkage and better daily functioning from doing web-based crossword puzzles compared to playing video games.

The Research

Researchers from Columbia and Duke ran a randomized, controlled trial for 78 weeks to determine if doing Web-based crossword puzzles was more advantageous than playing computer video games for older adults with mild cognitive impairment.

The participants, who had an average age of 71, were randomly assigned to one of the two test groups. Those who did 12 weeks of computerized crossword puzzles (followed by six booster sessions), showed improved memory function compared to those who played video games.

Some of the highlighted findings included:

• At both 12 weeks and 78 weeks, the group who did crossword puzzles had superior scores on the 11-item Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale-Cognitive (ADAS-Cog). In measuring daily functioning at the 78-week mark, the crossword puzzle group also had superior scores on the Functional Activities Questionnaire (FAQ).

• Although both forms of training were equally effective in an earlier stage, the crossword puzzle group showed more benefits to their brain at the later disease stage.

• Using MRIs, the researchers were able to determine that there was less brain shrinkage at 78 weeks for those in the crossword puzzle group.

“The benefits were not only in cognition, but also in daily activities with indications of brain shrinkage on MRI that suggests that the effects are clinically meaningful,” explained lead researcher D.P. Devandand, MD and professor of psychiatry and neurology at Columbia.

Study strengths and limitations

Although more research is certainly warranted, especially because there was no control group against which to compare the cognitive training groups, there were some strengths worthy of consideration.

For one, 28% of the participants were from racial and ethnic minority groups. In addition, the drop-out rate was only 15%, which was impressive for such a lengthy home-based trial.

As Duke Professor of Psychiatry and Medicine Murali Doraiswamy, MD, points out, the study has certainly provided hope for the future of mild cognitive impairment. “The trifecta of improving cognition, function, and neuroprotection is the Holy Grail for the field. Further research to scale brain training as a home-based digital therapeutic for delaying Alzheimer’s should be a priority for the field.”

The results of the study were published in the October 27, 2022 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine’s journal, Evidence.


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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