My mother developed Alzheimer’s disease that was diagnosed when she was about 82. Diagnosis often is behind the curve because the symptoms of the disease, or with many forms of dementia, have existed for substantial time before a neurologist makes an actual diagnosis. Often, the person has developed skills to mask the disease from friends and relatives, some as simple as list-making. When a parent has either of these dreaded diseases, there is more than mild concern for his or her offspring. That is also my case.

I work every day with my brain as a practicing lawyer. We analyze and dissect problems constantly. To have a proficient brain is crucial to a good attorney. For that and other reasons, I want to stay ahead of the game. I have toyed with the idea of genetic testing for the APOE genes I inherited. Do I have two APOE3s, one APOE3 and one APOE4 or the dreaded matched pair of two APOE4s? To know or not to know, that is the question. My sisters adamantly have refused to test. I have pondered if I test will they or won’t they want to know my results? So, I procrastinate — not one of my usual traits.

I have read and have written diet would appear to be a crucial player in the forestalling of dementia. What we ate years ago has affected us, and there isn’t much we can do about that now. One thing I do know at my age, I will not have early onset. Ha.

Then, I read of a study in England that was dealing with adults older than 50 and what each did to stimulate his or her brain. This study is entering its 25th year, and it has some interesting results. The study has had 19,000 participants, and the primary inquiry is with the amount of word and number exercises. More particularly, they inquire whether these people regularly engage in crossword and/or Sudoku puzzles.

The study found the more regularly people engage with puzzles, such as these two, the sharper their performance is in a range of memory assessing tasks.

Dr. Anne Corbett, of the University of Exeter Medical School, has determined there are improvements in both speed and accuracy in memory assessments. She found the problem-solving of people who regularly do these puzzles performed equivalent to an average person eight years younger compared to those who didn’t.

The study was conducted online, and the participants were assessed every year. Each was asked how often he or she did number or word puzzles and was given a series of tests measuring attention, reasoning and memory. These tests were converted into a measurement of brain function. The correlation definitely was there. The more puzzles the participant did, the better his or her performance in these tests.

Of course, at this stage, the study could not scientifically prove a cause and effect. Regardless, brain function for those who did these puzzles had a skill level of about 10 years younger than his or her actual age, and eight years younger on short-term memory.

The medical field for years has stressed exercise on a daily basis for good physical health. Running, biking, weight training, aerobics and walking now are lauded as the road to better physical well-being. So, why not mental exercise for the brain’s good health? It certainly makes sense.

I have done crossword puzzles for years, almost daily for the past 25 years. I remember realizing how smart my fellow law students were our first year together as we talked or responded in class. But I always will remember Jan, who ate breakfast with us many a morning. One hand held a fork and the other a pen, not pencil, as she tore through the Sun Times daily crossword puzzle. I was so impressed I started stumbling through them as well. I used a pencil and made many erasures, but I got better.

Then, I found the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. I bought a subscription so I could print out this puzzle online early Saturday evening. It was hard. Sometimes I had huge blanks for the week, but I improved.

Somewhere in the past few years, I decided to see how one did that square puzzle with 81 blanks and only some of the blanks with numbers. I was to learn the idea was to fill each 3-by-3 sub square with numbers from 1 to 9 with no repeats. However each line of nine blanks horizontally and vertically also had to have each of the number 1 to 9. I struggled, but I had found Sudoku.

Most newspapers start with an easy Sudoku puzzle Monday and increase the difficulty each day. The first ones often have one star, meaning easy, and advance to five stars as the most difficult toward the end of the week. I often do the puzzle in the USA Today. It seems the same person creating these puzzles has a day of the week. The guy doing the Thursday puzzle was killing me. But I learned new techniques and ways to solve these simple but complex mysteries. Now, I can beat him more than not.

Am I sharper? My wife seems to think so, but I still blank on names and often forget details she thinks are so important. So, I will do my puzzles and hope my advanced years are clearer and brighter. But heck, these puzzles have become really fun. Try them.

Dennis Marek can be reached at

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