Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
Recently, my daughter introduced me to Wordscapes, one of the many free addictive word games that we can play on our phones. The goal is to unscramble letters and fill in a crossword-type puzzle, and apparently, there are enough levels to keep a player occupied for years. I am now in a tight competition with my wife, daughter, and sister. We convince ourselves that these time-consuming games are good for our brains. Are they?
Word games are nothing new. Crossword puzzles have been popular since the 1920s, and Scrabble since the 1950s. Our phones, however, have given us a very convenient way to access them, anytime and anywhere. They are fun, challenging, and actively engage us.
So, what do scientific studies say about word games and brain health?
We have learned that exercising our brain is as important as exercising the rest of our body, and that regular brain exercise has indeed been shown to maintain cognitive function, grammatical reasoning, and working memory (also known as short-term memory) as we age. They also improve how long we can keep our focus on a task. Those who spend an hour a day on mentally challenging activities maintain their ability to effectively reason or think longer than those who do not. However, studies have not specifically shown that these activities reduce the risk of developing dementia. More research is necessary to better define the benefits.
Of course, studies have long shown that physical activity is incredibly beneficial for our brain. Physical exercise improves cognition, memory, and sleep, as well as reducing anxiety and depression. It reduces the risk of dementia as well as stroke and heart attack.
My conclusion is that, unless you do it while walking or driving, there is no downside to playing these word games, and it sure is a great way to pass the time while waiting in line. If you enjoy them, by all means continue. It provides that satisfied feeling when a task is completed, which makes us want to continue playing. Whether or not studies have conclusively proven short- as well as long-term benefits, it makes sense that actively using our brain is better than passively staring at a screen. And, if these word games are combined with interaction with others, such as a game of Scrabble or conferring over a tough task, then we add the benefits that socializing brings.
Research has clearly demonstrated that when we take care of ourselves physically and mentally, our general health improves. I urge you, as always, to make physical exercise a habit, to eat a healthful diet, to maintain your mental health, and yes: to exercise your brain.