Crosswords and Sudoku may keep your brain a decade younger in middle age.
Sitting down to do a puzzle once a day has a dramatic effect on memory, and could help to ward off dementia in later life.
The largest and most detailed joint study of how puzzles affect the over-50s asked people to do a battery of cognitive tests over a week.
Those who did daily word puzzles performed as well as people 10 years younger, the researchers found. Number puzzle enthusiasts had the thinking skills of people eight years younger.
This suggests the puzzles may ward off declining memory in older age, providing a mental ‘reserve’ which experts believe can prevent or delay dementia.
Dr Anne Corbett, senior author of the two studies on word and number puzzles, from the University of Exeter, said: ‘Most of the people involved in this research did crosswords or sudoku, which exercise the memory and improve problem-solving abilities and focus.
‘the working theory behind this is that the brain is a muscle just like any other in the body, and continuing to use it will improve its capacity and adapatability.
‘The brain is made up of lots of connections, which we need to regularly use in activities like puzzles so we don’t lose them.’
More than 19,000 people were asked how often they completed word and number puzzles, with answers ranging from never to monthly, weekly, daily or more than once a day.
Participants, aged 50 to 93, then completed detailed online cognitive tests every day for a week.
Across all 10 tests, which included remembering number sequences or matching pictures after they disappeared, those who did daily number puzzles scored higher than everyone else.
People who did daily word puzzles scored higher in nine out of 10 tests. Both sets of people had much faster reaction times, pressing buttons quicker when selected objects flashed up on a computer screen.
The results, published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, show those who did daily number puzzles had the short-term memory of people eight years younger.
Those who did word puzzles had the problem-solving skills of people 10 years younger, based on a test in which they saw a diagram of a square within a circle and marked sentences like ‘the circle encompasses the square’ as true or false.
The research is part of the ongoing ‘Protect’ study on the brain health of over-50s, which is still recruiting participants.
The authors, who also included King’s College London, conclude that puzzle enthusiasts have brains which may work better for longer. They saw significantly lower test results among people who never did puzzles at all.
Dr Corbett said: ‘We’ve found that the more regularly people engage with puzzles such as crosswords and sudoku, the sharper their performance is across a range of tasks assessing memory, attention and reasoning.’