When I give a presentation about brain health and fitness, there are always a few people who come tell me afterward that they do crossword puzzles everyday. They heard that mental exercise is good for the brain so they are pleased and proud to report that they do the best they can to maintain their brain functions. But are they really? What if I was a gym instructor? Would the same people tell me proudly that to keep their whole body in shape they do biceps movements everyday, and that’s all they do? I DO feel like I was this gym instructor when I hear the crossword puzzles claim! Solving crossword puzzles repetitively is not the best habit for two reasons.
First, the first crossword puzzles one did were truly stimulating but the marginal value declines with repetition. You may remember that the role of neuroplasticity is to allow the brain to change in reaction to new events. Doing the same task over and over will not trigger neuroplastic changes in your brain. This is why novelty is necessary when trying to exercise the brain. And novelty necessarily means challenge. A new task will require more effort than something a very familiar one.
Second, solving crossword puzzles engages only a small portion of the brain: mostly some language and memory retrieval areas. What about the rest of the brain? If you want a sharper brain, you need to exercise your whole brain, not just one or two functions. This means that you need to find a variety of different exercises or habits that will engage different brain functions.
To get you started here is one brain teaser for each main cognitive ability: memory, attention, language, executive functions, etc. Enjoy!