New Study Reveals Puzzles and Brain Training May Not ‘Stop Mental Decline’

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford,
updated on Dec 11, 2018

New Study Reveals Puzzles and Brain Training May Not ‘Stop Mental Decline’

A new study undertaken at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and the University of Aberdeen suggests engagement in problem-solving does not protect individuals from declining mentally as they age

We’ve all heard the term “use it or lose it” when it comes to our cognitive abilities, but a new study undertaken by Roger Staff at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and the University of Aberdeen suggests this may not be as accurate as previously thought. Published in the BMJ this month, the latest study looked at the memory and mental processing speed of a group over the course of 15 years.

The group of 495 test subjects were all born in 1936, and have previously taken part in a group intelligence test at age 11. This latest study began when the participants were 64. Each individual was recalled up to five times over a 15 year period.

Results suggested that each individual's engagement in problem-solving activities such as Sudoku or crossword puzzles showed no protection from mental decline. Engaging in other intellectually stimulating activities on a regular basis, such as gardening, needlework, or playing a musical instrument on a regular basis suggested links with higher mental ability in old age.

Overall, findings suggest that those who engage more throughout their lives are better protected from relative decline.

Many participants in this study were unable to participate over the full 15 year period, with some choosing to drop out and others dying.

The findings of this latest research differ from other recent studies, which have suggested cognitive training can improve aspects of memory and thinking in middle-aged or older people. A 2015 study suggested brain training could potentially help elderly people to better manage daily tasks.

In 2017, the Global Council on Brain Health recommended individuals take part in stimulating, new activities that challenge the way they think, socially engage, and lead towards a healthier lifestyle. Amongst their recommendations included:

  • Taking up cooking.
  • Learning new technologies.
  • Practising Tai Chi.
  • Volunteering.
  • Undertaking creative writing or art projects.

The Global Council on Brain Health recommended a wide variety of alternative activities to brain training to help our brains function later in life. The younger we start these activities (providing we continue to consistently participate), the better our brain function should be as we age.

Chief Scientific Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, Dr David Reynolds, commented that while this latest research adds to the ongoing use it or lose it debate, it does not consider individuals with dementia, or whether brain training could decrease or impact the risk of the condition.

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