Word puzzles such as a daily crossword can give pensioners some of the the brain functions of people ten years younger, a new study has revealed.
The puzzles improve memory, attention and reasoning and regular problem solving, leads to a sharp brain in later life.
Puzzling could also help ward off cognitive decline and it has been proven that keeping an active mind reduces a decline in thinking skills.
But experts say more studies need to be done to link crosswords to neurodegenerative diseases.
Keith Wesnes, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “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.
“Performance was consistently better in those who reported engaging in puzzles, and generally improved incrementally with the frequency of puzzle use.
“For example, on test measures of grammatical reasoning speed and short-term memory accuracy, performing word puzzles was associated with an age-related reduction of around 10 years.
“We now need to follow up this very exciting association in a clinical trial, to establish whether engaging in puzzles results in improvement in brain function.”
Prof Wesnes and his team from Exeter University and Kings College London studied data from over 17,000 people aged 50 and above asked how often they played word puzzles.
The team discovered that participants who regularly tackled word puzzles performed better at tasks assessing attention, reasoning and memory.
They used participants in the PROTECT online platform, run by the University of Exeter and Kings College London, with 22,000 healthy people aged between 50 and 96 registered.
The online platform, funded by the Alzheimer’s Society and the National Institute for Health Research, enables researchers to conduct and manage large-scale studies without the need for laboratory visits.
To prevent neurodegenerative diseases the Alzheimer’s Society recommend maintaining a healthy brain as well as staying physically active and eating a balanced diet.
Dr Doug Brown, Director of Research of Alzheimer’s Society, said: “We know that keeping an active mind can help to reduce decline in thinking skills.
“This new research does reveal a link between word puzzles, like crosswords, and memory and thinking skills, but we can’t say definitively that regular ‘puzzling’ improves these skills.
“To be able to say for sure, the crucial next step is to test if there are benefits in people who take up word puzzles.
“In the meantime our top tips to reduce the risk of developing dementia are keeping physically active, avoiding smoking and eating a healthy balanced diet.”
Clive Ballard, Professor of Age-Related Diseases at the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “We know that many of the factors involved in dementia are preventable. It is essential that we find out what lifestyle factors really make a difference to helping people maintain healthy brains to stop the soaring rise of the disease.
“We can’t yet say that crosswords give you a sharper brain. The next step is to assess whether encouraging people to start playing word games regularly could actually improve their brain function.”
The research was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London.