One American in seven takes part in this relaxing yet challenging activity.

From the comfort of your armchair it involves nothing more than turning to the back of your daily newspaper with a pen or pencil at the ready.

And yet, in one of the largest studies of its kind, the lead researcher says the results are “very exciting,” provided you do this often.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m talking about solving crossword puzzles. Here’s what the study showed. . .

Better Performance on 9 Cognitive Tasks

For the study, scientists at the University of Exeter and King’s College London analyzed data from more than 17,000 men and women over 50 who took part in a series of online cognitive tests to measure accuracy of short-term memory, attention and reasoning.

The researchers found those who engaged most often in word puzzles performed much better on these key aspects of brain function.

In fact, the researchers calculated that their brain performance was equivalent to that of a person ten years younger.

Lead author Keith Wesnes, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Exeter Medical School, said, “We found direct relationships between the frequency of word puzzle use and the speed and accuracy of performance on nine cognitive tasks…

“Performance was consistently better in those who reported engaging in puzzles, and generally improved incrementally with the frequency of puzzle use.”

Improves Cognitive Reserve

This is not the first time crossword puzzles have been linked to better brain function. A previous study tested the idea that solving crosswords could slow memory decline.

The researchers enrolled 488 cognitively healthy people aged between 75 and 85. The participants were given an extensive battery of neuropsychological tests every 12 to 18 months.

When considering only the members of this group who later developed dementia, the researchers found that the crossword puzzlers among them delayed the onset of memory decline by just over 2½ years. Neither the level of education nor participation in other brain stimulating activities significantly altered the findings.

The researchers put forward several reasons for the result. The most likely was that crossword puzzles improve cognitive reserve. This maintains brain function even among people in the throes of dementia.

Cognitive reserve basically is “excess brain power” you build up by using your head while you still can. It’s like a cognitive savings account. Such people start from a higher base and can afford to lose more memory and cognitive ability while still maintaining normal function.

While it probably won’t put off dementia forever, higher cognitive reserve can push it back by several years, and in some cases may see out a person’s life without symptoms of dementia.

A One or Two Year Delay is “Huge”

The cognitive reserve hypothesis was confirmed in another study conducted by scientists at Harvard Medical School and published in the journal Neurology in 2015.

They conducted brain scans on 186 healthy men and women with an average age of 74. They also questioned the participants about past and current cognitive activities.

Those who engaged in greater intellectual pursuits over their lifetime had just as much amyloid beta – the Alzheimer’s-associated protein – as did those who took part in fewer brain stimulating activities.

But the people who used their heads more were able to delay the symptoms of dementia. By the way, this also points up something that has only recently come to light: quite a few people with brain plaques never show signs of dementia.

Dr. David Knopman, Professor of Neurology at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, who was not one of the authors of the study, commented, “If that resulted in a year or two delay in symptoms across the population, that would be a huge effect.”

If you don’t receive a daily newspaper, you can go to the AARP website, which features a new crossword puzzle to solve every day of the week. It’s on a screen, so no pen or eraser is required. The link can be found below.