Weighing in on Alzheimer’s disease and crossword puzzles


There is probably nothing about aging more terrifying than the specter of Alzheimer’s disease.

We are so afraid of losing our ability to remember things and, ultimately, to do the simplest things that we panic if we can’t remember trivial facts from the past, such as which of the Righteous Brothers had the wonderful high falsetto?

OK–it was Bobby Hatfield!

I know that’s Alzheimer’s Disease is not part of normal aging, yet I dread the thought of getting it and having one of my children care for me as I lose the ability to cook a simple dinner without setting the house on fire or go out for a walk in the neighborhood without getting hopelessly lost.

Will doing cross-word puzzles help?

The cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not known for certain. But there’s no shortage of suggestions about how to prevent or delay it, such as the idea that doing crossword puzzles on a regular basis may help. 

I’ve been skeptical of this claim for a bunch of reasons. One is the use of the word “may.” If doing crossword puzzles “may” prevent Alzheimer’s disease, it also “may not.” What’s the evidence? Will doing crossword puzzles do a better job of keeping my brain sharp than, say, reading those trashy tabloids from the supermarket checkout stand?

Sceptics abound

So I was excited to come across a post on www.elderguru.com on this very topic. The author allows as how he’s always had a hard time with–what he calls–the “do crossword puzzles to stave off Alzheimer’s mantra.”

Elder.guru quotes the author of a new book on crosswords who says research shows that what really matters is novelty–doing something new!  The blogger concludes that to keep your brain sharp, you need a bigger mental challenge, such as learning another language, learning to play a saxophone, or going back to college.

Alan Deutschman’s sensational book Change or Die discusses, among other things, the ability of our brains to change throughout our lives and the importance of doing new things that “you’ll be bad at for quite a while rather than always returning to pursuits you’ve been good at for many years.”

The author interviewed Michael Merzenich, professor of neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco, who says “My suggestion, is to learn Spanish or the oboe.”

So no crosswords puzzles for me.  I’m thinking the piano.

Photo by yourdon

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ElderGuru.com 11/07/2009, 8:38 am

    Just noticed the link you had dropped to my site – thanks much. Learning to play a musical instrument if you never have is far more challenging for the brain (and new) than doing a few crossword puzzles. Our body won’t improve unless we keep it challenged with new exercises, greater running distances, or more weight to lift. The brain is the same way.

  • Madeleine Kolb 08/30/2009, 9:58 am

    Kye, Thank you so much. I hadn’t heard of this book, but I’ll definitely check it out. There is so much research being done in this area now, and the results are fascinating. I love the concept of “deep practice.” One of the things I’m learning now seems to fit the bill, but that’s a subject for another post.

  • Kye 08/30/2009, 7:53 am

    Madeleine, have you run across Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code? It’s not about aging per se, but I’ve found what he has to say about myelination to be very provocative.

    What brings it to mind in the context of your post, is your quote of Deutschman on the importance of doing new things ‘that you’ll be bad at for quite a while’. Coyle talks about the importance of ‘deep practice’–the kind of practice in which you’re working at your edge, failing, and correcting your mistakes–in building myelin circuits.

    So… taking that together with Deutschman and Merzenich, it looks like building new myelin circuits is an important thing to be doing, to keep our brains healthy as we age.

    Thanks for a provocative train of thought!