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Is Your Daily Wordle Making You Smarter?

Humans love a good game. During the pandemic, board games, puzzles and other novelties flew off the shelves. More recently came Wordle, a blockbuster daily challenge that quickly became internet-famous and was scooped up by none other than the New York Times

The tech industry has taken our favorite pastimes even more seriously, with the launch of “brain-training” games, like Lumosity’s “mental fitness” games and activities, meant to improve memory, attention and other cognitive abilities. 

Despite their popularity, much of the research behind these brain-training games has been disputed. In 2016, Lumosity had to pay the Federal Trade Commission $2 million to settle deceptive advertising claims, such as those stating the product could help users perform better at work and in school and prevent cognitive impairment linked to age and other serious health conditions, like dementia. 

Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads,” Jessica Rich, then-director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said at the time. 

Even years later, the science surrounding games and puzzles’ effect on our brains remains complicated. As a 2014 statement from the Stanford Center on Longevity notes, “Like many challenging scientific topics, this is a devil of many details.” 

So what’s the consensus? 

The general research on brain training is up in the air. While Wordle hasn’t been around long enough for us to make any sweeping statements about its impact on the human psyche, there’s other evidence that some ways people engage with the world can prevent cognitive decline and potentially delay the onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s. 

First, it’s important to understand the concept of brain health. The World Health Organization defines good brain health as “a state in which every individual can realize their own abilities and optimize their cognitive, emotional, psychological and behavioral functioning to cope with life situations.” 

Cognitive health, which puzzles and the brain-training industry targets, is described by the National Institute on Aging as “how well you think, learn and remember.” 

“I think it’s pretty much consensus that playing these games that are really targeted to improve [certain] skills can make you better in these skills that you’re training,” Susanne Jaeggi, Director of the Working Memory and Plasticity Lab at University of California, Irvine, says. “You’re playing attention games, so you’re getting better at attention games. If you go jogging everyday, you get faster. Things become easier. The real question is whether that helps you later on [with other functions].” 

All in all, playing word games really can’t really hurt. One 2018 study found that although playing puzzles can’t delay or prevent cognitive decline, it can increase your cognitive abilities throughout your life so that there’s a higher threshold to decline from. (Cognitive function refers to different mental abilities, including learning, thinking, reasoning, remembering, problem solving, decision making, and attention.) And a large study from the University of Exeter found that older adults who regularly do word and number puzzles, “the sharper their performance is across a range of tasks assessing memory, attention and reasoning.” 

“The improvements are particularly clear in the speed and accuracy of their performance,” the study says. “We can’t say that playing these puzzles necessarily reduces the risk of dementia in later life but this research supports previous findings that indicate regular use of word and number puzzles helps keep our brains working better for longer.”

In general, brain training is only one piece of the puzzle. Cultivating brain health is mostly about living a healthy, socially engaged lifestyle. 

“While dementia has a strong genetic component, there’s still the environment and what we do with our life that can delay its onset,” Jaeggi says. “Sleep, physical exercise, like walking, and good nutrition have been shown to be beneficial. And there’s also some emerging evidence that being able to speak multiple languages, like being bilingual or trilingual, is a protective factor. 

So, if you enjoy the Wordle, there’s no reason to stop. Plus, it’s free! Think twice “when you have to pay a lot of money for things,” Jaeggi says.

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The Paper Gown, a Zocdoc-powered blog, strives to tell stories that help patients feel informed, empowered and understood. Views and opinions expressed on The Paper Gown do not necessarily reflect those of Zocdoc, Inc. Learn more.