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Do Crossword Puzzles Help to Counteract the Aging Process? If so, Which Ones and How?

Posted Feb 04 2011 10:13am

Recently there has been an ongoing debate as to whether attempting crosswords regularly can stave off cognitive decline, which is the hallmark of healthy aging and dementia. As with many areas of psychology the answer to this question may not be as clear-cut as one would hope. Before considering the evidence for whether crossword participation can reduce cognitive decline in later life, it is necessary to consider the different types of crosswords available and understand whether one or another type may be more cognitively stimulating than the other. Generally, when we think of crosswords two kinds spring to mind, either general knowledge or cryptic crosswords.

A general knowledge crossword typically has clues which are similar to answering general knowledge quizzes, but the solver has the benefit of knowing how many letters make up the solution.

For example: “the capital of Peru (4)”…

One either knows the answer of Lima or does not. The solver also can benefit from intersecting clues that he/she has already completed to jog one’s memory. In this example an intersecting clue may suggest that the solution begins with an ‘L’. In psychology we call this cue dependent retrieval, in that a person may struggle to retrieve an answer to a specific question but retrieval is aided with a cue, sometimes the first letter.

There is little evidence that cognitive decline is attenuated if people take part in more general knowledge crosswords across their lifespan [1]. Older persons good at completing such crosswords are likely to be more confident in their everyday cognitive abilities and this may enhance cognitive functioning [2]. However, cued retrieval may actually reduce memory functioning in older adults due to the fact that older adults may become over-reliant on cues.

Cryptic crosswords, however, are completely different to solve. A cryptic clue has two different parts which both need to match to produce a solution.

For example, “antelope, just born we hear? (3)”….

Did you find the answer?  It is “gnu”. To solve this you must not only know that a gnu is a type of antelope but also that the g is silent, and therefore the solution should sound like “new (just born)”.

Cryptic crosswords include numerous different types of clues (e.g. anagrams, synonyms, homophones) and have a number of misleading words or abbreviations (for example, ‘peacekeepers’ will generally denote that there is a ‘UN’ which stands for United Nations, somewhere in the solution). Thus, a solver must process a relatively large amount of information when attempting a cryptic clue, as well as ensuring that the solution fits with other intersecting solutions.

Compared to a general knowledge crossword, a cryptic crossword requires the solver to use many different cognitive domains and constantly ensures that one is on the right track. For older adults, this may be difficult, especially for those who are new to cryptic crosswords. Thus cryptic crosswords seem to be more cognitively stimulating than general knowledge.

In a study we tested whether regularly solving cryptic crossword would enhance metacognition, the ability of being aware of your cognitive functioning. This was expected because the type of cognitive processing required to solve a cryptic crossword is very similar to techniques that psychologists use to enhance metacognition in older adults. For example, if one is trying to remember a telephone number then the person may read it a few times then test themselves without looking at the number. The person will have a relative level of confidence regarding the likelihood of recalling the telephone number at a later time. Metacognition is very important in later life, as when one’s memory functioning declines it is important that one is aware that more cognitive effort may be required in certain situations.

Cryptic crosswords require the solver to use his/her metacognitive system to constantly check whether a specific clue has produced the correct solution. By processing the abbreviations as well as the general knowledge part of the clue the person is continuingly checking whether their cognitive processing is producing the correct response. This is also combined with the fact that the clue produced need to fit with letters from intersecting clues which increases the self-testing or metacognition.

In conjunction with Chris Moulin and Cartiona Morrison of the University of Leeds, UK, we have used cryptic crosswords as an intervention activity using a unique within-subjects design. We asked half of our participants to attempt cryptic crosswords regularly for a six-week period while the other half were attempting a placebo activity. We measured various cognitive functions over the experimental period. After the initial six-weeks participants took a four-week break and then swapped tasks.

The most interesting finding was that the people who were attempting the cryptic crossword showed an increase in metacognition. These people also showed a decrease in memory confidence, meaning that these people produce a more realistic evaluation of their memory ability when attempting the cryptic crosswords compared to the placebo activity.

The results suggest that attempting cryptic crosswords helps older adults become more aware of the cognitive difficulties due to the demands of the crosswords. Cryptic crosswords may provide a valuable and cost-effective intervention for older adults to understand their current level of cognitive functioning and this will enable them to become more aware of when extra cognitive effort is needed to recall certain facts.

Our other research has shown that the increase in cognitive awareness by attempting cryptic crosswords is not repeated when using general knowledge crossword clues. This supports the view that the benefits of attempting crosswords with regards to metacognition, is due to the unique composition of cryptic clues. Our results have also supported the idea that attempting crosswords may be more beneficial to novice crossword solvers due to the novelty and challenge of the task. We found that metacognition increased to a greater degree for older people who were less au fait with attempting cryptic crosswords. However, there was still evidence that cryptic crosswords promoted cognitive awareness in people who regularly attempted such crosswords. Compared to general knowledge crosswords, cryptic crosswords can be solved many different ways, therefore attempting cryptic crosswords is similar to attempting new challenging cognitive activities each time.

In conclusion our research has shown that cryptic crosswords can help improve cognitive functioning in later life, which might not be the case for general knowledge crosswords. Overall the take-home message is continue doing the cryptic crosswords, even if they are a struggle!

—  Nicholas Almond has been based at the University of Leeds, UK, for almost twelve years. Nick has just completed his PhD in cognitive neuropsychology, which investigated the relationship between cognitive activity and cognitive decline in healthy aging.

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References

1. Hambrick, D. Z., Salthouse, T. A. & Meinz, E. J. (1999). Predictors of Crossword Puzzle Proficiency and Moderators of Age-Cognition Relations. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12(2), 131–164.

2. Dunlosky, J., Kubat-Silman, A. K. & Hertzog, C. (2003). Training Monitoring Skills Improves Older Adults’ Self Paced Associative Learning. Psychology and Aging, 18(2), 340–345.

Learn more on crosswords and the brain: Brain Games for the Weekend: One for each Cognitive Ability

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