Do Crossword Puzzles Help to Counteract the Aging Process? If so, Which Ones and How?

Recent­ly there has been an ongo­ing debate as to whether attempt­ing cross­words reg­u­lar­ly can stave off cog­ni­tive decline, which is the hall­mark of healthy aging and demen­tia. As with many areas of psy­chol­o­gy the answer to this ques­tion may not be as clear-cut as one would hope. Before con­sid­er­ing the evi­dence for whether cross­word par­tic­i­pa­tion can reduce cog­ni­tive decline in lat­er life, it is nec­es­sary to con­sid­er the dif­fer­ent types of cross­words avail­able and under­stand whether one or anoth­er type may be more cog­ni­tive­ly stim­u­lat­ing than the oth­er. Gen­er­al­ly, when we think of cross­words two kinds spring to mind, either gen­er­al knowl­edge or cryp­tic crosswords.

A gen­er­al knowl­edge cross­word typ­i­cal­ly has clues which are sim­i­lar to answer­ing gen­er­al knowl­edge quizzes, but the solver has the ben­e­fit of know­ing how many let­ters make up the solution.

For exam­ple: “the cap­i­tal of Peru (4)”…

One either knows the answer of Lima or does not. The solver also can ben­e­fit from inter­sect­ing clues that he/she has already com­plet­ed to jog one’s mem­o­ry. In this exam­ple an inter­sect­ing clue may sug­gest that the solu­tion begins with an ‘L’. In psy­chol­o­gy we call this cue depen­dent retrieval, in that a per­son may strug­gle to retrieve an answer to a spe­cif­ic ques­tion but retrieval is aid­ed with a cue, some­times the first letter.

There is lit­tle evi­dence that cog­ni­tive decline is atten­u­at­ed if peo­ple take part in more gen­er­al knowl­edge cross­words across their lifes­pan [1]. Old­er per­sons good at com­plet­ing such cross­words are like­ly to be more con­fi­dent in their every­day cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties and this may enhance cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing [2]. How­ev­er, cued retrieval may actu­al­ly reduce mem­o­ry func­tion­ing in old­er adults due to the fact that old­er adults may become over-reliant on cues.

Cryp­tic cross­words, how­ev­er, are com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent to solve. A cryp­tic clue has two dif­fer­ent parts which both need to match to pro­duce a solution.

For exam­ple, “ante­lope, just born we hear? (3)”….

Did you find the answer?  It is “gnu”. To solve this you must not only know that a gnu is a type of ante­lope but also that the g is silent, and there­fore the solu­tion should sound like “new (just born)”.

Cryp­tic cross­words include numer­ous dif­fer­ent types of clues (e.g. ana­grams, syn­onyms, homo­phones) and have a num­ber of mis­lead­ing words or abbre­vi­a­tions (for exam­ple, ‘peace­keep­ers’ will gen­er­al­ly denote that there is a ‘UN’ which stands for Unit­ed Nations, some­where in the solu­tion). Thus, a solver must process a rel­a­tive­ly large amount of infor­ma­tion when attempt­ing a cryp­tic clue, as well as ensur­ing that the solu­tion fits with oth­er inter­sect­ing solutions.

Com­pared to a gen­er­al knowl­edge cross­word, a cryp­tic cross­word requires the solver to use many dif­fer­ent cog­ni­tive domains and con­stant­ly ensures that one is on the right track. For old­er adults, this may be dif­fi­cult, espe­cial­ly for those who are new to cryp­tic cross­words. Thus cryp­tic cross­words seem to be more cog­ni­tive­ly stim­u­lat­ing than gen­er­al knowledge.

In a study we test­ed whether reg­u­lar­ly solv­ing cryp­tic cross­word would enhance metacog­ni­tion, the abil­i­ty of being aware of your cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing. This was expect­ed because the type of cog­ni­tive pro­cess­ing required to solve a cryp­tic cross­word is very sim­i­lar to tech­niques that psy­chol­o­gists use to enhance metacog­ni­tion in old­er adults. For exam­ple, if one is try­ing to remem­ber a tele­phone num­ber then the per­son may read it a few times then test them­selves with­out look­ing at the num­ber. The per­son will have a rel­a­tive lev­el of con­fi­dence regard­ing the like­li­hood of recall­ing the tele­phone num­ber at a lat­er time. Metacog­ni­tion is very impor­tant in lat­er life, as when one’s mem­o­ry func­tion­ing declines it is impor­tant that one is aware that more cog­ni­tive effort may be required in cer­tain situations.

Cryp­tic cross­words require the solver to use his/her metacog­ni­tive sys­tem to con­stant­ly check whether a spe­cif­ic clue has pro­duced the cor­rect solu­tion. By pro­cess­ing the abbre­vi­a­tions as well as the gen­er­al knowl­edge part of the clue the per­son is con­tin­u­ing­ly check­ing whether their cog­ni­tive pro­cess­ing is pro­duc­ing the cor­rect response. This is also com­bined with the fact that the clue pro­duced need to fit with let­ters from inter­sect­ing clues which increas­es the self-test­ing or metacognition.

In con­junc­tion with Chris Moulin and Car­tiona Mor­ri­son of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Leeds, UK, we have used cryp­tic cross­words as an inter­ven­tion activ­i­ty using a unique with­in-sub­jects design. We asked half of our par­tic­i­pants to attempt cryp­tic cross­words reg­u­lar­ly for a six-week peri­od while the oth­er half were attempt­ing a place­bo activ­i­ty. We mea­sured var­i­ous cog­ni­tive func­tions over the exper­i­men­tal peri­od. After the ini­tial six-weeks par­tic­i­pants took a four-week break and then swapped tasks.

The most inter­est­ing find­ing was that the peo­ple who were attempt­ing the cryp­tic cross­word showed an increase in metacog­ni­tion. These peo­ple also showed a decrease in mem­o­ry con­fi­dence, mean­ing that these peo­ple pro­duce a more real­is­tic eval­u­a­tion of their mem­o­ry abil­i­ty when attempt­ing the cryp­tic cross­words com­pared to the place­bo activity.

The results sug­gest that attempt­ing cryp­tic cross­words helps old­er adults become more aware of the cog­ni­tive dif­fi­cul­ties due to the demands of the cross­words. Cryp­tic cross­words may pro­vide a valu­able and cost-effec­tive inter­ven­tion for old­er adults to under­stand their cur­rent lev­el of cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing and this will enable them to become more aware of when extra cog­ni­tive effort is need­ed to recall cer­tain facts.

Our oth­er research has shown that the increase in cog­ni­tive aware­ness by attempt­ing cryp­tic cross­words is not repeat­ed when using gen­er­al knowl­edge cross­word clues. This sup­ports the view that the ben­e­fits of attempt­ing cross­words with regards to metacog­ni­tion, is due to the unique com­po­si­tion of cryp­tic clues. Our results have also sup­port­ed the idea that attempt­ing cross­words may be more ben­e­fi­cial to novice cross­word solvers due to the nov­el­ty and chal­lenge of the task. We found that metacog­ni­tion increased to a greater degree for old­er peo­ple who were less au fait with attempt­ing cryp­tic cross­words. How­ev­er, there was still evi­dence that cryp­tic cross­words pro­mot­ed cog­ni­tive aware­ness in peo­ple who reg­u­lar­ly attempt­ed such cross­words. Com­pared to gen­er­al knowl­edge cross­words, cryp­tic cross­words can be solved many dif­fer­ent ways, there­fore attempt­ing cryp­tic cross­words is sim­i­lar to attempt­ing new chal­leng­ing cog­ni­tive activ­i­ties each time.

In con­clu­sion our research has shown that cryp­tic cross­words can help improve cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing in lat­er life, which might not be the case for gen­er­al knowl­edge cross­words. Over­all the take-home mes­sage is con­tin­ue doing the cryp­tic cross­words, even if they are a struggle!

—  Nicholas Almond has been based at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Leeds, UK, for almost twelve years. Nick has just com­plet­ed his PhD in cog­ni­tive neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy, which inves­ti­gat­ed the rela­tion­ship between cog­ni­tive activ­i­ty and cog­ni­tive decline in healthy aging.



1. Ham­brick, D. Z., Salt­house, T. A. & Meinz, E. J. (1999). Pre­dic­tors of Cross­word Puz­zle Pro­fi­cien­cy and Mod­er­a­tors of Age-Cog­ni­tion Rela­tions. Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Psy­chol­o­gy, 12(2), 131–164.

2. Dun­losky, J., Kubat-Sil­man, A. K. & Hert­zog, C. (2003). Train­ing Mon­i­tor­ing Skills Improves Old­er Adults’ Self Paced Asso­cia­tive Learn­ing. Psy­chol­o­gy and Aging, 18(2), 340–345.

Learn more on cross­words and the brain: Brain Games for the Week­end: One for each Cog­ni­tive Ability


  1. Mel Green on February 4, 2011 at 11:59

    I know a lot of peo­ple who used Cross­words to keep their brain active… but recent­ly at a fam­i­ly gath­er­ing, I watched my b/f’s grand­moth­er do reg­u­lar (not cryp­tic) cross­word puz­zles, and she has NO idea what’s going on in real life. I guess this helps prove your point!

  2. Nick Almond on March 3, 2011 at 8:20

    Thanks for read­ing the arti­cle. I think you are spot on, nor­mal cross­words may not be ben­e­fi­cial for pro­mot­ing every­day func­tion­ing and aware­ness, but cryp­tic cross­words may help.

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