Fake news? Or not? Jigsaw puzzles improve cognitive functioning in seniors!

Not high-school seniors. Not college seniors. Seniors as in senior citizens—old people—like me.

We all know (don’t we?) that solving crossword puzzles and playing games like Scrabble can supposedly help stave off Alzheimer’s by keeping the left side of the brain active. What about puzzles that stimulate the right side of the brain, such as jigsaw puzzles?

Jigsaw puzzles, like sourdough, have been occupying many Americans’ attention during the pandemic. Now there is some evidence (enough evidence???) that they are cognitively helpful as well. Let’s look at two sources.

One is a study that appears to have been published by the National Institutes of Health, in their Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience series, with the headline “Jigsaw Puzzling Taps Multiple Cognitive Abilities and Is a Potential Protective Factor for Cognitive Aging” (October 1, 2018). I say “appears to” because the conclusion is more measured than the headline, as is typically the case:

Our findings indicate that jigsaw puzzling recruits multiple visuospatial cognitive abilities and is a – not necessarily causal – protective factor for visuospatial cognitive aging. In addition, we found no evidence that low amounts of jigsaw puzzling over a 30-day period (approximately 3600 connected JP pieces) induce clinically relevant cognitive benefits, compared to engaging in other potentially beneficial activities.

If that conclusion isn’t technical enough for you, you’ll probably want to read the abstract. Here is an excerpt:

A total of 100 cognitively healthy adults (≥50 years of age) were randomized to either a 30-day home-based JP intervention (≥1 h/day) plus four sessions of cognitive health counseling (JP group) or four sessions of cognitive health counseling only (counseling group). We measured global visuospatial cognition by averaging the scores of eight z-standardized visuospatial cognitive abilities (perception, constructional praxis, mental rotation, speed, flexibility, working memory, reasoning, and episodic memory). JP skill was assessed with an untrained 40 piece JP and lifetime JP experience with retrospective self-report. JP skill was associated with all assessed cognitive abilities (rs ≥ 0.45, ps < 0.001), and global visuospatial cognition (r = 0.80 [95% CI: 0.72–0.86], p < 0.001). Lifetime JP experience was associated with global visuospatial cognition, even after accounting for other risk and protective factors (β = 0.34 [95% CI: 0.18–0.50], p< 0.001). The JP group connected on average 3589 pieces in 49 h. Compared to the counseling group, they improved in JP skill (Cohen’s d = 0.38 [95% CI: 0.21–0.54], p < 0.001), but not in global visuospatial cognition (Cohen’s d = -0.08, [CI: -0.27 to 0.10], p = 0.39). The amount of jigsaw puzzling was related to changes in global visuospatial cognition within the JP group, only after accounting for baseline performance (β = 0.33 [95% CI: 0.02–0.63], p = 0.03). 

Was that clear?

OK, maybe too technical for most people, so let’s look at source #2, an attempt (from The Guardian) to popularize the issue, citing the same study. Clearly author Arwa Mahdawi is a real writer, not a stuffy statistician! Here’s an excerpt from her piece:

My latest adventures in confirmation bias are centred on jigsaw puzzles. At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone got obsessed with 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles; they were flying off the shelves like toilet paper. Losers, I thought at the time. Why would anyone over the age of eight and under the age of 108 bother piecing together a stupid picture? You know what comes next: I reached the stage of pandemic despair where I became addicted to puzzles. My idea of a wild night is now crouching over a table, rummaging through a cardboard box and going “Ooh!” when I locate the right piece. Depressingly, I also seem to have reached an age where it is possible to strain a neck muscle from overenthusiastic puzzling.

So, is my latest hobby a complete waste of time? My partner says yes; science says no. Research suggests puzzles can help increase concentration and sharpen your memory. And, according to one study, doing jigsaws “recruits multiple visuospatial cognitive abilities and is a protective factor for visuospatial cognitive ageing”. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds like a great excuse to order another puzzle.

Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning