How Doing Puzzles Can Help Seniors' Sharpness

A series of reports by CBS News and USA Today explores the aging of an iconic generation and the impact on the nation.

The first baby boomers are about to hit 65. These are the people who vowed they would never get old!

To mark the moment in time, CBS News is collaborating with print partner USA Today to look at issues surrounding boomers as they to turn into seniors.

On Wednesday, "The Early Show" explored how to keep minds sharp, with a focus on whether doing puzzles, such as crossword puzzles and Sudoku, as well as brain teasers, are effective ways to keep memories fresh and crisp.

CBS News/USA Today Series: Senior Moment

Dr. Alan Mazurek, a neurologist and Assistant Clinical Professor of Neurology at New York's, Mt. Sinai Hospital, explained to co-anchor Harry Smith how working out one part of the brain can help keep the other parts working, as well. And at the end of the day, he says puzzles aren't as valuable as human interaction:

There was a major paper published that said seniors who engaged in things like cards, crosswords, going out with friends for lunch, helped maintain memory and cognition, better than people who don't know how to interact. The low-tech stuff is very important, even if it's just going out to lunch at the diner -- that human interaction is critical.

In general, puzzles are great, but human interaction is much more helpful. Get out of the house and interact with people at the library, the store, the senior citizens center.

Doing a crossword puzzle is solitary activity, a passive activity, like reading, where you're interacting with the book, using your mind to imagine, but there's no response from the other side. If you get the wrong answer, it just lies there. If you're talking to someone, you're thinking of responses, how to follow up -- the constant back-and-forth that that interaction stimulates is much more valuable. That's why TV is such a terrible tool in all of this -- it's a passive exchange, and you're really not getting anything back.

You can focus just on doing puzzles, instead of interacting with others, but the impact is limited -- it's a one-dimensional activity. You are not even interacting with a machine -- you can take them and fill them in. Maybe you can up the ante by playing against others or timing yourself.

What effect do puzzles have on the brain?

The brain is kind of like plastic. It's moldable. It changes -- there are stem cells in the brain -- and it's not just when we're young that they are active. The brain is constantly capable of growing, sprouting connections between cells. There's also chemistry that's involved that can be enhanced by certain activities. If you're interested in memory, you want to focus on working out the brain's hippocampus, near the temporal lobes. If you're interested in music and art, you focus on the parietal lobes, on the right hemisphere. For math, it's the left hemisphere.

But overall, the brain works as a unit, and the nerve tissues grow like muscles. So, if one particular area is being worked out, it affects the entire brain overall. It's like if someone is a virtuoso violist -- that music part of the brain is much larger and much more active than other peoples'. But if you really want to be good at music, you can enhance those areas in your brain. You won't get it as big as a virtuoso's, but no part of the brain is an island unto itself -- everything is affected.

There used to be a debate between people who thought of the brain as "lumpers" or "splitters" -- people who maybe thought parts of the brain were somewhat separate and didn't affect each other. There was a debate about whether physical therapy would help you if you've had a stroke, because it seemed to be totally separate. But now we better understand the plasticity of the brain, and that we can do these brain exercises to enhance overall brain function.

How do you know the right kind of puzzles to use?

It's a lot about comfort levels: A math person would be comfortable doing math type exercises. But that's like someone who is pumped up already doing more curls. What they really should be doing is stretching out their back muscles or legs. You want to challenge yourself but not get frustrated.

When do you stop challenging yourself if it's just becoming frustrating?

That's the toughest question to answer. I say you should work slowly, but surely. When someone starts lifting weights, they start with five pounds, then go to 10, then go to 15. It depends on the individual what your limits are.

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