Ask Dr. Monti: Can Mental Activities Like Sudoku Lower My Risk for Alzheimer’s?

Answer from Daniel A. Monti, director of the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital

Dr. Monti

Question: Is it true that doing mental activities like crossword puzzles and Sudoku can lower my chances of having dementia or Alzheimer’s later in life?

Answer: There is data to support that proactively using your brain can preserve cognitive ability and delay dementia illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease. One way of looking at it is that the more you use your brain, the more interconnected all of its neurons become. Therefore, it is probably best to regularly do a broad range of mental exercises. For example, doing only crossword puzzles may help you to maintain good vocabulary and word recognition skills, but might not help you stay good at adding the totals on your grocery bill.

For more insight on this question, I consulted world-leading authority on the topic, Andrew Newberg, M.D., Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Jefferson. Dr. Newberg relayed that meditation might be another great way of preserving and strengthening the brain’s functions. For example, he recently published a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease showing that after only 8 weeks of a 12-minute-a-day meditation practice, subjects had measurable improvements in their memory that correlated with functional changes in the part of the brain responsible for memory and attention.

An analogy Dr. Newberg likes to use is that of an athlete. If you want to be good at tennis, you don’t practice basketball. You practice tennis because that develops a particular set of skills. But regardless of whether you want to be good in tennis or basketball, you might run or lift weights. These latter types of exercises result in a general improvement in how your body functions that could be useful for many different activities.The brain is similar so that some activities like crossword puzzles or Sudoku will help you become good at those activities, whereas more general practices such as meditation or memory games might provide a broader benefit. But do mental activities that you enjoy since positive emotions also confer a benefit to the brain’s functions. If you hate doing crossword puzzles, doing them will only make you miserable, and that isn’t good for the brain either.

One final point is that being social, maintaining a good body weight, and exercising are also crucial to maintaining a healthy brain. All of these activities can decrease inflammation, an underlying process involved with dementia.

ASK DR. MONTI: E-mail Dr. Monti your question here, and he could answer it an upcoming blog post! Dr. Monti is Director of the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and the author of “The Great Life Makeover.” Read more about him here.

Join Dr. Monti’s Facebook Fan Page – Daniel A. Monti, MD – and follow him on Twitter @DanielMontiMD.