Why puzzles are the clue to brain power

We all love a daily challenge - from Sudoku and word searches to cryptic crosswords. But did you know that doing the morning crossword is more than just a boredom-busting exercise? 

Filling in all those little white squares could boost your brain power in later life.

While it's been suggested before that Sudoku number puzzles improve memory, while crosswords improve vocabulary, boffins in the UK found the more regularly people do puzzles the better their brain function when they get older.

A 2017 study by experts at the University of Exeter Medical School and Kings College London - one of the largest of its kind - found the more regularly participants engaged with word puzzles, the better they performed on tasks assessing attention, reasoning and memory.

In the online trial, researchers looked at data from more than 17,000 healthy people aged 50 and over. The team asked participants how frequently they played word puzzles such as crosswords and used online cognitive test systems to assess core aspects of brain function.

They found "puzzlers" have brain function equivalent to 10 years younger than their age on tests of grammatical reasoning, speed and short term memory accuracy.

"We found direct relationships between the frequency of word puzzle use and the speed and accuracy of performance on nine cognitive tasks assessing a range of aspects of function including attention, reasoning and memory," said University of Exeter Medical School Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Keith Wesnes.

"Performance was consistently better in those who reported engaging in puzzles, and generally improved incrementally with the frequency of puzzle use."

This backs up a 2011 study which found mental "cross-training" can boost IQ. 

A Swiss-American team found that a group of college students improved their performance on a pattern recognition test - a commonly used IQ test - after training their working memory.

The researchers say the study found mental exercise really does limber up the brain and make it more quick-witted.

They found those who had trained on the working memory test scored slightly higher on average than the control group in a test of 29 questions. 

Lead researcher Martin Buschkuehl from the University of Michigan also gathered anecdotal evidence of real-world effects from participants.

"They said that after the training they were more attentive," he said. 

"They could more easily follow lectures, or had less trouble understanding the papers they read."

Want to get a free daily dose of puzzles? Whether you're a word person or numbers are your game, you can test your grey matter with crosswords, Sudoku, trivia, Code Cracker and Wheel Words puzzles at www.thesenior.com.au/puzzles.