Word games and puzzles aren't just a source of entertainment. They also bring a sense of accomplishment if you complete a challenging one.
Take Wordle, for instance, one of today's more popular word games. As you try to uncover the five-letter word of the day, your vocabulary is stretched and tested — and your deductive reasoning skills, too. When all five letter tiles turn green, it's only natural to want to share your results with a friend.
Word games are nothing new, of course. Some may argue that no board game collection is complete without Scrabble, for instance, and newspapers have included crossword puzzles for decades.
But is there more to word games than amusement or competition? Could they also be a form of exercise for your brain, helping it stay healthy and young by regularly challenging it?
Do word games and puzzles help your brain?
"Unfortunately, there's really no conclusive evidence supporting that word games and puzzles benefit the brain over time," says Dr. Tanu Garg, a neurologist at Houston Methodist.
For instance, studies haven't shown that they help prevent memory loss or reduce the risk of developing dementia.
But word-game hobbyists need not despair.
"Logically, however, if I had to choose between watching TV all day versus playing word games and puzzles, I am going to pick the games and puzzles," Dr. Garg adds. "Anything that challenges your mind or jogs your memory is going to be good for you — even if there's no clear data showing a specific benefit to the brain."
And Dr. Garg points out that there's certainly no harm in regularly putting your brain to work through these games and puzzles.
"If you like to play Wordle every day or some other type of puzzle, you should definitely keep doing it," says Dr. Garg. "It's certainly not going to hurt. There are no downsides to having a hobby that brings you joy and encourages continued learning."
Your brain also benefits from physical exercise
While exercising your mind may not have known benefits to your brain health, Dr. Garg adds that there are steps you can take between games to help keep your brain young as you age.
"Physical activity is incredibly beneficial for the brain," explains Dr. Garg. "Studies have shown this over and over. It can improve cognition, memory and sleep, as well as reduce anxiety and depression — all things that promote brain health."
People who make exercise a habit also have a reduced risk of dementia. In fact, one study found that people who are inactive are almost twice as likely to experience subjective cognitive decline — worsening or more frequent confusion or memory loss — as those who exercise regularly.
Habitual exercise is also known to reduce a person's risk of stroke, when blood flow to the brain is blocked. Stroke can cause brain damage in just minutes and is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S.
"Your heart supplies your brain with blood, so keeping your brain young also means keeping your heart and blood vessels healthy," says Dr. Garg. "For instance, atherosclerosis — having plaque in your blood vessels — can involve plaque buildup anywhere, including the blood vessels supplying the brain with blood. Buildup can lead to blockages, increasing your risk of stroke."
3 expert tips for keeping your brain young
There's certainly no downside to playing word games and puzzles, but if your goal is to take steps to benefit your brain health, Dr. Garg has some specific advice.
"With brain health, I think of full-body health — taking care of yourself physically and mentally," explains Dr. Garg. "Your whole body works together. When something isn't functioning correctly, whether that's in your heart, kidneys or somewhere else, it's eventually going to affect your brain."
Here are Dr. Garg's better brain health tips:
- Make exercise a habit – aim to get about 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, but know that even just getting 10 more minutes of physical activity per day can make a difference. (Related: What's the Best Way to Track Physical Activity?)
- Eat healthy – minimize processed foods, added sugars, unhealthy fats and prioritize eating whole foods (vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, healthy fats) and portion controlling
- Don't let your mental health take the back burner – strive to keep a positive, optimistic outlook, take steps to reduce unnecessary stress and don't ignore the signs of anxiety or depression