Column: Brain-twisted or brain-washed — can crossword puzzles and word games sharpen memory?

A man in a button-up shirt, sweater and glasses sits works on a Sudoku puzzle at the kitchen table.
Jairo Angulo works on a Sudoku puzzle on Friday at his home in Los Angeles. Angulo believes doing puzzles is good for mental sharpness, but scientists say there is little evidence that they improve long-term cognition.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

It’s a daily ritual for millions of people. You wake up, pour a cup of coffee, and eventually make your way to one or more crossword puzzles, word games and other brain twisters.

The test of banked knowledge and problem-solving ability can boost your ego, or deflate it. But either way, you’re clearing out the cobwebs, right? It’s the “use it or lose it” theory in action, and as I get older, I’d like to believe these mental exercises can help keep my mind sharp and maybe even ward off memory loss, even if my wife usually beats me at all these games.

But is there any science behind that, or is it wishful thinking?

I am trying to solve that riddle, because since launching the Golden State column two months ago, I’ve heard from a lot of readers who — like me —put at least a bit of faith in the value of mental gymnastics.


“In order to keep my brain functioning,” 73-year-old Jairo Angulo of West L.A. wrote, “I play Wordle, complete the Jumble, do the Sudoku, KenKen and crossword puzzles daily.”

California is about to be hit by an aging population wave, and Steve Lopez is riding it. His column focuses on the blessings and burdens of advancing age — and how some folks are challenging the stigma associated with older adults.

Jose Galvan, 77, said he thinks his daily routine of a crossword puzzle, Wordle and “one or more Sudoku grids” keeps him “mentally agile.”

I’m not out to crush the spirits of Angulo, Galvan or anyone else who labors daily at the kitchen table, pencil or digital device in hand, but nailing Sudoku or reaching genius level in the Spelling Bee might not be as beneficial as you might think.

“Doing puzzles, in and of itself, will only improve how you do the puzzles,” said Dr. Beau Ances, a Washington University professor who specializes in neurodegenerative disease. “I am not sure it improves long-term cognition.”

Ances said he has patients who love the puzzles and he absolutely encourages them to keep at it; having a daily ritual you look forward to is beneficial in many ways. Galvan, for instance, told me it’s good for his self-esteem when he conquers a puzzle.

The word yowza in the new edition of Merriam Webster's "Official Scrabble Players Dictionary."
The word yowza in the Merriam Webster’s “Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.” To some folks’ surprise, scientists say there’s no strong evidence to support a connection between word games and brain health.
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

One more benefit, Ances said, is that because some crosswords get harder as the week goes on, it’s useful for a doctor to know that you used to make it to the end of the week but now lose your way by Wednesday or Thursday.

But don’t count on it to ward off senility.

Debra Cherry, a clinical psychologist and executive vice president of Alzheimer’s Los Angeles, said there’s no strong evidence to support widespread faith in the value of word games and other brain enhancement products. In fact, her agency’s website offers a warning:

“There is a lot of information available on the internet on the topic of keeping your brain healthy, but it is important to understand there is currently no proven way to absolutely prevent Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Beware of anyone promising to do that.”


Not that there isn’t hope of breakthroughs, said Cherry, and she highly recommends intellectual stimulation as one component of healthy living. But when it comes to activities that might improve acuity, she said, “the strongest evidence is for aerobic exercise.”

In fact, exercise, a heart-healthy diet, social engagement, good sleep habits and general physical health were cited by a half-dozen specialists I interviewed about keys to mental acuity.

“Everybody wants to say, ‘Oh, if I do crossword puzzles, or oh, if I eat blueberries,’” said UC Irvine neuroscientist Dr. Claudia Kawas, who initiated a long-term study of Laguna Woods residents 90 and older. But “a healthy lifestyle involves physical and cognitive activities, period.”

Dr. Scott Grafton, a UC Santa Barbara neuroscientist and author of “Physical Intelligence,” says humans did not evolve in order to sit around playing word games. Going back 75,000 years, he said, they had to solve tough physical and social challenges to survive. Because of where we came from, a brisk off-trail walk in the woods is better for us than a stroll through a park, Grafton said, and “the cognitive challenge in the former drives brain health in profound ways.”

Hands rest on a newspaper page that displays crossword and Sudoku puzzles.
The Lancet Commission identified 12 risk factors for dementia including excessive alcohol consumption, smoking and infrequent social contact. So avoiding those things, to the extent possible, might be more helpful than mastering Sudoku.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Dr. Lon Schneider, a Keck School of Medicine of USC professor who serves on the Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, once told me that if I occasionally forget where I left my keys, there’s no cause for concern unless I find them in the refrigerator. When I asked him about cognitive maintenance, he sent me a Lancet report that identified 12 risk factors for dementia.


The 12 are excessive alcohol consumption, head injury, exposure to air pollution, lack of education, hypertension, hearing impairment, smoking, obesity, depression, physical inactivity, diabetes and infrequent social contact.

So avoiding those things, to the extent possible, might be more helpful than mastering Sudoku.

But as we all know, medical science has a long history of changing its mind about what’s good or bad for us, and there is no more mysterious organ in the body than the brain.

And although experts don’t completely understand it, the ones I spoke to said that learning new things — such as music and language — might be helpful.

That’s why I was particularly interested in an email from Michael Suttle, a Dana Point resident who shared a success story.

Back in 2010, when he was in his late 50s, Suttle, a software salesman, ocean swimmer and trumpet player, found himself forgetting phone numbers and appointments. It got so bad that he began writing down his daily schedule so he wouldn’t miss meetings.


About four years later, he said, “I noticed a remarkable improvement in short-term memory and wondered why.”

The improvement happened just as Suttle rededicated himself to music, practiced hard and won a seat in the newly formed Dana Point Symphony Orchestra. He also joined Symphony Irvine, and being a concert performer required him to learn difficult new music, including Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth symphonies, and Mahler’s Third, Fourth and Fifth.

Two men, dressed in tuxedos and bow ties, play a trumpet.
Michael Suttle, left, plays with Symphony Irvine and thinks music sharpened his memory.
(Edie Van Huss)

“Plus, the art of executing these onstage in front of a packed house requires a ton of concentration,” said Suttle, who found that he no longer needed to write down his daily schedule.

I’d selfishly like to think it was the music that turned things around for Suttle, because I’ve been putting in time on my guitar and learning Spanish. But without large studies over long stretches, it’s hard to reach strong conclusions about any of this. It might well be that for Suttle, having a specific goal and new social networks were as helpful to him as playing the music.

Daniel Levitin, a musician and neuroscientist who pooh-poohs the benefits of word games in his book “Successful Aging,” told me it’s a little easier to make a case for music. When I told him about Suttle, Levitin — who also wrote “This Is Your Brain on Music” — said it’s likely that decoding music he’d never played before was key, challenging his fingers to process complex signals from his brain.

“There is some possibility that physical and mental tasks in tandem are beneficial,” Levitin said. “You cannot make a musical sound without moving something,” and this taxes the brain in ways that create “new layers of connectivity.” You won’t “stave off Alzheimer’s,” Levitin said, but you might “stave off the noticeable effects of it.”

One more argument for the benefits of music comes from a small short-term memory study that tested adults between 60 and 80. Theodore Zanto, director of the UC San Francisco Neuroscape‘s Neuroscience Division, told me that 20 participants played a word search game for 20 minutes each day on a tablet, and 20 more played a game that required them to remember and repeat a musical rhythm.

Participants did a digital facial recognition test before and after, taxing their short-term memory skills. After the eight weeks of games, the word search group showed no improvement, but the music group showed a 4% improvement.


“It’s not a whopping change,” said Zanto, but it suggests “maybe you can get a bit of an edge” through music.

Or through other tasks that challenge the mind or muscle.

“We push kids to learn things all the time, but we don’t push ourselves at the other end,” said Kawas. “I don’t think it’s about any particular activity, but the more the brain is challenged, probably the better it is.”

So if you have a favorite puzzle, keep playing. But when you get pretty good, step up to the next challenge, and it’s never too late to learn an instrument or new language.