The missing puzzle piece – how a puzzle a day can keep the doctor at bay

Have you completed a puzzle today? Conquered a crossword? Solved a Sudoku? Well perhaps you should – regularly playing puzzles could have a whole range of health benefits.

It’s long been thought that, just like our muscles, our brains could also benefit from regular training, and that regular head-scratchers could improve everything from our vocabulary to our memory to our stress levels. Not to mention, they’re also pretty fun!

Well now it looks like there might finally be some scientific backing behind these theories, with increasing evidence that puzzles can be effective for brain health.

Either way, the odd crossword puzzle definitely can’t hurt – and Radio Times Puzzles has hundreds of brain teasers to choose from, with more added on a weekly basis.

Classics such as Sudoku and Enigma Codes are there, as well as new favourites such as the TrackWord game and a weekly prize puzzle. Crossword enthusiasts are in for a real treat, with difficulty levels ranging from easy to cryptic and, of course, good old general knowledge.

If that’s suddenly starting to sound like a lot of effort, then read on below to see the benefits that regular puzzling can have – other than bragging rights of course!

Crosswords and Sudokus lead to sharper brains

A study led by the University of Exeter and King’s College London analysed 19,000 participants between the ages of 50 and 93 to see if puzzles kept their brains sharper in later life – and the results were promising.

Those who solved daily word puzzles performed as well as people a whopping ten years their junior, while participants who solved daily number puzzles had a mental capacity of those eight years younger.

“We’ve found that the more regularly people engage with puzzles such as crosswords and Sudoku, the sharper their performance is across a range of tasks assessing memory, attention and reasoning,” said Dr. Anne Corbett, the research team leader. “The improvements are particularly clear in the speed and accuracy of their performance.

“We can’t say that playing these puzzles necessarily reduces the risk of dementia in later life, but this research supports previous findings that indicate regular use of word and number puzzles helps keep our brains working better for longer.”

Word puzzles can improve focus and memory

An investigation into the impact of word puzzle use on cognitive function in older adults found a direct link, with those who performed word puzzles daily or more than once daily performing the highest in cognitive tests – which covered the likes of focused and sustained attention, executive function and working memory.

The group that never performed word puzzles, perhaps unsurprisingly, performed the most poorly in the cognitive tests – now if that’s not motivation to crack open a crossword then I’m not sure what is!

Social Bonds

It’s not all about brain function and cognitive response – socialising is key to our mental health, and puzzles are a great way to strengthen relationships and make new friends while also working the old grey matter. Crosswords in particular work well with a companion as they rely on a wide variety of knowledge, which is where it might be handy to have a helper of a different age or background to provide new perspectives and suggestions that you might not have considered. It’s a great way to learn new words!


As expected, any word related puzzle is sure to broaden your vocabulary. The cryptic crosswords on Radio Times Puzzles in particular purposely include several uncommon words, which is sure to have you reaching for a dictionary or thesaurus in no time – and soon you’ll be armed with a bevy of interesting new words.

A new zest for life!

Benefits to memory and vocabulary might be an expected side effect of regular puzzles – but it might also make you more adventurous.

One study showed that older adults who completed a 16-week program including weekly crossword and Sudoku puzzles became more open to new experiences, likely brought on by an increase in confidence and the perceived ability to meet new challenges.

So there you go – regular puzzling could be the gateway to a whole host of new experiences!

Increased knowledge base

Word-based puzzles such as crosswords rely heavily on general knowledge, so it’s a great chance to learn more about all sorts of topics. Working on more difficult puzzles with a friend is a great way to pick up some fun trivia – you never know when this could come in useful at a pub quiz!

A delay to dementia?

The scientific community continues to debate whether puzzle playing can reduce the risk of dementia, but there certainly seems to be signs they could delay the syndrome. One study found that crossword puzzle participation delayed the onset of dementia by as much as two and a half years compared to non-puzzlers. One explanation for this is that brain stimulating activities such as puzzles builds up a “cognitive reserve” which is maintained in the face of increasing dementia pathology.

A similar study by the University of California found the more often someone engaged in mentally stimulating activities, the less likely they were to have a build-up of beta-amyloid (which causes Alzheimer’s symptoms) in the brain – which proves that there’s hope still against such a cruel disease.

Stress Levels

Ultimately, though, aside from all the health benefits puzzles are supposed to be fun. It goes without saying that partaking in an activity you enjoy will reduce your stress levels, and can act as a distraction from the world for a while you have something to focus on. Even if you find yourself frustrated occasionally this will work on your emotional control, and will only increase your feelings of competence and confidence once you crack the conundrum.

Subscribers of Radio Times Puzzles can save puzzles and continue at a later time, with free tips and hints available – so make sure to take a break if you need to, and most importantly try and enjoy it!