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How Jigsaw Puzzles Can Help Those with Alzheimer’s

Assembling a puzzle provides excellent exercise for the brain.  As children, we are encouraged to build puzzles to help us learn spatial and problem-solving skills. 

There is increasing evidence that the reasoning and motor skills that we are trying to encourage in children need to be refreshed as we age.  Putting together jigsaw puzzles is a great way to help seniors to exercise their brains and keep diseases like Alzheimer’s at bay.

An additional benefit of puzzle building is that it is often social in nature. Many seniors struggle with feeling cut off from family and friends and the social interaction of a puzzle can provide them an outlet for community that might otherwise be lacking in their lives.

Medical studies have shown that jigsaw puzzles provide the necessary stimuli to improve visuospatial cognition, mental rotation, compromise perception, and episodic memory.

An estimated 5.5 million people in the US suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. About two-thirds of the affected group are women. An additional 5% suffer from early onset Alzheimer’s. Early symptoms include memory loss, difficulty in planning or solving problems, vision loss, reduced decision-making skills, and difficulty completing familiar tasks.  

While we still have not been able to discover a cure for the disease, we are becoming increasingly competent at stalling its progression. Memorization, riddles, learning new skills and socialization are all proven to help stall the progression of the disease.

Much of the best treatment for Alzheimer’s and related diseases that cause cognition issues involves activities that stimulate brain function. Jigsaw puzzles are often primary in the therapy protocol of those people affected by these diseases.

In some studies, researchers were able to show that patients suffering from memory loss who committed to spending forty-five minutes working on a puzzle just two times a week, experienced subsequent improvement on memory tests. These improvements seemed to delay decline and increasing symptoms for six to nine months at minimum.

Additionally, studies have shown that those who engage in puzzle building even a few times a week, show mental acuity that is up to ten years younger than their physical age.

Studies suggest that puzzles are so effective because they require the use of both sides of the brain.  The right side of the brain utilizes creativity and intuition while the left side of the brain applies logic and order to the process.

The use of both sides of the brain improves visual recognition and also strengthens short-term memory. Short term memory benefits most from memorization of shapes and colors and patterns.  Puzzles provide this type of activity in spades.

Other benefits of utilizing both sides of the brain include access to the part of the brain that allows for meditation. This part of the brain helps encourage feelings of contentment and can help those suffering from Alzheimer’s to control their mood more effectively. 

There is also a well-established link between meditation and overall physical health.  Meditative thinking has been clearly linked to improvements for those with high blood pressure and has been shown to reduce anxiety.

The secondary, but no less important, benefit of puzzle building for seniors is related to the social nature of the activity that was alluded to earlier. Especially for those who are no longer able to communicate verbally or who feel frightened or bewildered by face to face interaction, puzzles can be an opportunity to socialize in comfort. 

Humans are social animals by nature and studies suggest that people who do not interact with others on a daily basis will suffer from decreased hippocampus function, which can lead to memory loss and decreased spatial navigation. 

Seniors struggling with memory loss often feel bewildered, lonely and isolated.  They feel that they have lost their purpose in life.  The accomplishment that can be enjoyed through the building of a puzzle can boost their pride and self-esteem and provide them with the dopamine benefits that accompany successes.

The best puzzles for the treatment of Alzheimer’s are not so complicated that they will become bewildering, but not so easy that they pose little challenge.  Ideally, the puzzle will have many colors, well-defined shapes and will be evocative of memories. 

Puzzles with very small pieces should be avoided for those who suffer from arthritis or decreased spatial awareness. 

Studies have shown that it is very beneficial to cover the table or working surface with a white tablecloth.  The contrast between the puzzle and the white of the tablecloth aids in focus and identification of pieces.  Additionally, many of those affected by Alzheimer’s have trouble with their vision, so the blank white surface behind the pieces is often very helpful.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many of those affected by Alzheimer’s are lonely.  Taking the time to sit down with them and work on a puzzle together can not only encourage the activity itself, but it can foster the social interaction that they are lacking for good health. 

If you have a loved one that suffers from memory loss or Alzheimer’s, buying them jigsaw puzzles and building it with them can provide them the necessary care and support that they need to both improve and to continue to live full and vibrant lives.

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