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Written by: Byron Edgington
Date: March 1, 2016

Flickr: Jessica Whittle

Flickr: Jessica Whittle

I love working crossword puzzles. The high point of my week comes when I curl up with a warm mug of coffee, in my robe, fireplace glowing, the Sunday New York Times crossword waiting for me, ready to be solved. My spouse refers to this sacred chunk of my week as “NYT Day.”

Most NYT Days I can work my way through the crossword in an hour or so, two hours if it’s one of those fancy-pants, trickster puzzles with numbered, sequential clues and/or multiple-lettered boxes etc. I prefer the straightforward across the board puzzles, the ones without inner diagrams and all that schmaltz, but all the puzzles hold my interest, nonetheless.

One reason I’m so devoted to crosswords is, admittedly, because of the persistent rumor that solving them is a powerful antidote to dementia and assorted other nasty diminutions of brainpower. Urban myth perhaps, but with the ‘brain as muscle’ analogy driving it, the rumor thrives and grows, empowering or deluding us with its message: Working crosswords and solving similar brain teasing puzzles prevents or eliminates our otherwise inevitable loss of cranial computing skills. I’ll be sixty-eight in a few months, and I need all the help, and all the brain cells I can get and hang onto, so NYT Day has replaced church as my religious experience. When a man realizes he’s been using his iPhone flashlight to locate his iPhone it’s clear that he’s not the mental giant of days past. It was embarrassing; let me tell you.

But is it a rumor, or is it true that puzzles and other brainteasers extend one’s mental ability? There’s evidence that such mental gymnastics do work, but overall the jury’s still out on specific exercises such as crosswords. A recent Yale University study lends credence to a generalized satisfaction with one’s aging seeming to assist mental health. Those people who avoid negative attitudes and hold a better opinion about the benefits of older age seemed to retain more of their brainpower. The ‘Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging’ as the Yale survey was called, reports that: “….people who held more negative beliefs about aging showed a higher loss of volume in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s important for memory formation.” So happy thoughts, and a gracious consideration of our dotage can help, it appears, even if crosswords do not. Yale University study:

These negative and positive assumptions start affecting brainpower early. According to the same study, by the time we’re adolescents our attitudes about life, success, other people and our own prospects seem to be formed and already contributing to our ability to work a puzzle at age 68. As Mr. Ford may or may not have said, “If you think you can, or your think you can’t, either way you’re right.” Still, does the execution of what’s basically a silly kid’s puzzle help our brain cells flourish or not?

From the University of Michigan, (that school up north), comes a study that cites several factors that may assist a more gracious mental aging process. Some of the results are intuitive: Surround yourself with smart people; stop smoking; lose weight; avoid excess alcohol. Some fit right in with my crossword as therapy theme: Set a goal every day; quiet your mind; find a stress reduction technique that works. (Personal note: The Michigan study didn’t mention lost football games, an obvious mental gaffe on the surveyors’ part, so the study, in my heavily biased Buckeye opinion, may be flawed.) University of Michigan study:

But it does seem to support my topic, that solving a crossword of a Sunday may allow the five pounds of grey matter between my ears to function better and/or longer or both. I quit smoking thirty years ago; spend time with engaging, positive people—(the Friday Night wine tasting at Whole Foods is another weekly triumph. I call our little tribe my ‘Whole Friends.’); and my emphasis in these days of retirement is toward fewer activities than more of them. I try not to should on myself quite so much, and that helps as well. Finally, as per the Michigan study, and in line with crossword activity, I set a goal every day.

Does this mean my Sunday NY Times crossword helps me think better? No, but it may have peripheral benefits. I’m no scientist. Heck, I can’t find my iPhone half the time, and I often scramble around looking for my coffee when it’s been in the microwave all along. But I can see, if the Yale study is indicative, how the crossword might keep my brain cells tidied up. Every Sunday I’m absolutely positive, completely assured and eminently confident that I can solve the thing, the tougher the better. Sometimes the crossword kicks my tail, and I have to actually sneak a look at a clue, a practice I find abhorrent and avoid at all costs. But when I do figure the puzzle out, when 115 down matches up with 122 across, I scan the puzzle for open spots and don’t see any, I take a certain amount of satisfaction in my success.

But still…does it help keep my brain capacity up and thriving? Well, I guess it’s better than exercising my thumb on the remote and being passively entertained by TV fare. Or at least that’s what my personal, and highly unscientific, study shows. Now if I could only find that blasted iPhone!