Number Puzzles – Can They Keep Your Brain Young?

Over the past few years, there have been quite a few articles online championing the benefits of doing number puzzles in general and Sudoku puzzles in specific. However, are these articles telling the truth and, if not, what does the research concerning number puzzles actually say?

In this article, we’re going to look at one of the best-known research studies. Then we’re going to try and figure out if Sudoku puzzles keep brains younger or if the whole thing is a load of old rubbish and there are no benefits to doing number puzzles. So, read on to find out more…

What Was the Original Number Puzzle Study All About?

The original study, entitled “The relationship between the frequency of number‐puzzle use and baseline cognitive function in a large online sample of adults aged 50 and over” aimed to…

[Establish] affordable lifestyle interventions that might preserve cognitive function in the aging population and subsequent generations is a growing area of research focus. Data from the PROTECT study has been utilised to examine whether number‐puzzle use is related to cognitive function in older adults.

Wiley Online Library

To put this into slightly simpler English, their aim was to see if number puzzles, such as Sudoku, could be used to keep the brain functioning properly. This would decrease the need for expensive care for elderly people suffering from dementia later in life.

What Was the Methodology Used?

Data from 19 078 healthy volunteers aged 50 to 93 years old enrolled on the online PROTECT study were evaluated for self‐reported frequency of performing number puzzles. Two cognitive‐test batteries were employed to assess core aspects of cognitive function including reasoning, focussed and sustained attention, information processing, executive function, working memory, and episodic memory. Analysis of covariance was used to establish the differences between the six frequency groups.

Wiley Online Library

In a nutshell, the study measured the levels of the following six abilities:

  1. reasoning
  2. focussed and sustained attention
  3. information processing
  4. executive function
  5. working memory
  6. episodic memory

We should note that none of the volunteers were assessed before they took the test. This means we have no idea if they were regular number puzzle solvers, what their brain functions were like before they did the tests, or any number of other criteria. People did the tests online, so controls would have been minimum at best. Finally, people self-reported certain information. So, there needed to be a certain level of trust that the volunteers were telling the truth.

All the above doesn’t necessarily mean the study has no value. However, without any proper controls, the findings cannot be considered 100% accurate.

What Were the Results of Doing Number Puzzles?

Highly statistically significant main effects of the frequency of performing number puzzles were seen on all 14 cognitive measures, with P values of less than 0.0004. Interestingly, participants who reported engaging in number puzzles more than once a day had superior cognitive performance on 10 core measures compared with all other frequency groups, although not all were statistically significant.

Wiley Online Library

Put simply, the results show that people who do some form of number puzzle once a day have better cognitive functions than those that don’t do daily number puzzles.

However, one caveat that should be noted. The phrase, “although not all were statistically significant” suggests that there is a correlation between doing daily number puzzles and improved brain function. However, the differences between those who did number puzzles and those that didn’t was too small to be of note.

What Conclusions Can We Draw from the Study?

This study has identified a close relationship between frequency of number‐puzzle use and the quality of cognitive function in adults aged 50 to 93 years old. In order to determine the value of these findings as a potential intervention, further research should explore the type and difficulty of the number puzzles. These findings further contribute to the growing evidence that engaging in mentally stimulating activities could benefit the brain function of the ageing population.

Wiley Online Library

Many online articles became popular because some newspapers jumped to conclusions. The authors see a correlation between doing number puzzles and improved cognitive function. However, they also note that more research needs doing to ascertain whether there is a definite link.

What Does the Number Puzzle Study Mean?

First of all, I am someone who tends to make bold claims. The benefits of doing brain-exercise puzzles, such as Sudoku puzzles, cannot (in all honesty) be backed up with scientific research. However, I make no apologies for this.

After all, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the physic walks around with a mouldy old piece of leather. He uses this to cure people of various skin diseases. The physic has no idea he is walking around with something that would later be called ‘penicillin’. However, that doesn’t stop him from ‘understanding’ the link between the mould and curing some types of skin disease.

I am also sure that you have read about the brain being a muscle. And having a healthy brain requires giving it a workout. Again, how true this may be is open to debate but I look at it this way. Doing exercises that exercise your body physically can never be bad for you. So I reckon the same is true for exercising the old grey matter.

Wrapping It All Up

And there you have it. The results may not have been a foregone conclusion but so what? Both physical and mental exercise is certainly good for you. And while I can’t help you out physically, I can certainly help you out mentally.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a link to the NHS webpage. It contains loads of information about avoiding dementia. Sadly, the NHS hasn’t mentioned my Sudoku puzzle books. Hopefully one day puzzle books will get the recognition I am sure they deserve.

Giles Ensor

Teacher, writer, and dad who spends most of his time making many different types of Sudoku puzzles (and other puzzle books when he finds time) because a mental workout is just as important as a physical one.

View all posts by Giles Ensor →

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