A Puzzle a Day: Can Doing Jigsaw Puzzles Prevent Dementia?

Some estimates suggest that as many as seven million adults 65 and older could suffer from some form of dementia. By 2019 in the US, it's expected as many as 10% of adults 70 and older will have dementia.

Studies show that the more you age, the higher your likelihood of dementia. 2019 statistics showed that while only 3% of adults ages 70 to 74 had dementia, the number increases greatly with age.

22% of adults ages 85 to 89 have dementia.

So, while the problem for seniors is real, what can be done to help avoid it or slow the progression? Many believe jigsaw puzzles might be a useful tool for those who have dementia.

What makes jigsaw puzzles unique from other types of puzzles? Are you wondering what working on a jigsaw puzzle does to help the brain of a dementia patient?

Learn more about the disease of dementia, how it impacts your brain, and who's at risk for developing it. We'll also closely examine the role working a jigsaw puzzle can have in helping a dementia patient. Read on to learn more about dementia and jigsaw puzzles.

Table of contents


What Is Dementia?

Often people think of dementia as a single disease or diagnosis. Instead, dementia describes a group of symptoms related to one's ability to do things they used to control, including:

  • Memory
  • Thinking
  • Social abilities
  • Decision making

Dementia is not a stand-alone disease. Instead, it describes the symptoms that go along with several specific diseases. More on this part later.

Most people associate dementia with the symptom of memory loss. Memory loss can occur for any number of reasons, including dementia. But you shouldn't assume you have dementia if you have memory loss.

It can be an early warning sign that you should notice, especially in your senior years of life.

Dementia is often a progressive condition. So, what starts as some signs of memory loss can progress with time, especially without appropriate interventions and a healthy lifestyle.

Dementia can impact a person's ability to perform basic activities of daily living. These might include things like:

  • Basic communication
  • Ability to drive safely
  • Meal preparation
  • Shopping
  • Maintaining a clean home
  • Managing medication
  • Handling personal finances

Some assume that dementia is a normal part of the aging process since this often impacts seniors. In fact, that isn't true, and many seniors can age and never experience dementia symptoms.

Normal aging might include weakening muscles and bones or stiffening arteries and vessels. It might also include struggling to identify a word or misplacing the car keys. Those things don't automatically signify dementia.

The symptoms of dementia, especially as it advances, are more pronounced. More on this later.

Women are slightly more likely to suffer from dementia than men. Likewise, married people are less likely to develop dementia than unmarried people.

Types of Dementia

It's good to remember that dementia isn't a disease itself. Instead, it's the umbrella term for symptoms like memory loss and other thinking and decision-making abilities.

Dementia symptoms can actually appear in those suffering from a host of other conditions. The most commonly associated disease with dementia is Alzheimer's disease.

Approximately 60% to 80% of dementia symptoms are associated with Alzheimer's disease. In addition to Alzheimer's disease, other types of dementia include:

  • Lewy body
  • Vascular
  • Frontotemporal
  • Other causes like Huntington's disease
  • Mixed dementia from multiple sources

Some people might suffer symptoms of dementia that can actually be reversed. Common causes of reversible dementia might be thyroid problems and vitamin deficiencies.

Symptoms of Dementia

There are a host of symptoms associated with dementia. Of course, memory issues are the most common. Most experts break symptoms into categories of cognitive changes and psychological changes in behavior.

Some symptoms of cognitive changes in dementia might include:

  • Noticeable memory loss picked up on by someone else
  • Difficulty finding words
  • Visual and spatial struggles, including while driving
  • Problem-solving or reasoning issues
  • Difficulty handling complex tasks
  • Issues with organizing and planning
  • Motor function and coordination issues
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation

 The psychological symptoms might include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Personality changes
  • Agitation
  • Paranoia
  • Inappropriate behaviors
  • Hallucinations

Often the psychological changes are noticed by someone besides the one suffering from dementia symptoms.

What Causes Dementia?

Dementia occurs when there's damage in the brain. There's a loss of nerve cells. Then those same nerve cells don't make connections in the brain.

Experts tend to group types of dementia by what causes them or how the events in the brain occur. For example, some dementias show an increase in proteins or protein deposits in parts of the brain impacted.

There are several types of dementia that are progressive, meaning they worsen over time and are not reversible.

Alzheimer's disease is one form of progressive dementia. Scientists know there is much they still need to learn about Alzheimer's disease.

Yet, they know that one of the more prevalent forms of Alzheimer's comes from a gene mutation. One of the important genes that doctors watch in potential Alzheimer's cases is apolipoprotein E4 (APOE).

The mutation of these three genes can also be genetic.

Another progressive dementia is vascular dementia. This type of dementia is caused when blood vessels in the brain impact its blood supply. Vascular dementia can often cause strokes and have more pronounced symptoms than memory issues.

Often a vascular dementia patient's thinking is slowed, and they struggle with organization and organized thinking.

Lewy body dementia is also caused by clumps of proteins in the brain. Those suffering from Lewy body dementia, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease often show these protein clumps in this progressive type of dementia.

The frontotemporal lobe is associated with personality, behavior, and language, which is usually impacted by this type of dementia. There's a breakdown of nerve cells, and when this happens, this part of the brain struggles to make connections.

It's not uncommon, especially for sufferers of advanced age, to have mixed dementia. This means their dementia is caused by multiple types of dementia.

Dementia Risks and Prevention

You already know that some causes of dementia can be related to genetics. When doctors and scientists look at dementia, they look at risk factors that can't be changed and risk factors that, as a patient, you could control.

Uncontrolled Risk Factors

First, let's look at the risk factors you have no control over.

While we already know that dementia is not considered a normal part of aging, age is a big risk factor. Statistics show an increased prevalence of dementia as a person ages.

With that said, dementia can occur in younger patients, too.

Family history can also be a risk factor. This doesn't mean that if you have a family member with dementia, you are also going to suffer from dementia. S

Some people get dementia and have no family connections. While others with family connections never get dementia. Some medical tests are available to examine the possibility of genetic mutations in the brain.

For people who also have Down's Syndrome, there is a strong connection to Alzheimer's disease. Early onset Alzheimer's often impacts those with Down's Syndrome by middle age.

Race and ethnicity can also be uncontrollable factors. Some studies show that African Americans are twice as likely as whites to develop dementia in advanced age. While Hispanics are one and half times more likely than their white counterparts from developing dementia.

Controllable Risk Factors

If you're worried about dementia in the future, there are some things you can do to help prevent or offset the possibility of symptoms.

Like many other health-related recommendations, maintaining a healthy diet with regular exercise can be key in keeping dementia at bay.

Researchers have found that those who have limited exercise and mobility are more likely to be dementia sufferers.

There isn't one particular diet that protects you more from dementia. Yet, those who eat an unhealthy diet seem more inclined to dementia. Eating plenty of fresh produce, grains, nuts, and seeds is a good start to a healthy dementia-free diet.

When considering your diet, you want to be mindful of vitamin deficiencies. Those who have vitamin deficiencies, especially vitamin D, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12, and folate, are more prone to dementia.

Those who consume large quantities of alcohol have long been associated with brain issues. Several medical studies have shown that those who consume larger than normal quantities of alcohol are more likely to develop dementia, especially the early onset version.

There are several issues related to cardiovascular health that could impact your risk factor for dementia. These include:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High cholesterol
  • A buildup of fats in your artery walls (atherosclerosis)
  • Obesity

While scientists are just beginning to consider the connections, there does seem to be some connections between late-life depression and the onset of dementia.

Those who suffer from sleep apnea or many sleep disturbances, including lack of sleep, are more likely to develop dementia.

While you can't always control when you suffer from head trauma, there are connections between those suffering from a traumatic brain injury and the onset and risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

There are some medications that can also worsen the symptoms of dementia. Try to avoid taking over-the-counter sleep aids that contain diphenhydramine (Advil PM, Aleve PM).

There are also some connections between medications used for urinary urgency and dementia. These medications might include oxybutynin (Ditropan XL).

What Happens in the Brain of Dementia Patients

Scientists know that when they start to see signs of dementia, it's time to consider those symptoms and figure out what's happening in the brain to cause them.

For example, an Alzheimer's patient will often have parts of their brain with plaque and tangles. The plaque spots are clumps of protein clusters. These are called beta-amyloids.

The tangles in the brain are made up of tau protein. It's believed that these plaque clusters and tangles prevent healthy neurons from making connections in the brain, which is when you start to see symptoms.

Remember, different types of dementia will have different causes of the symptoms from inside the brain.

In vascular dementia, it's believed the brain experiences microscopic bleeding. This then causes those blood vessel blockages that create the symptoms of dementia.

When the brain suffers from a disease like Alzheimer's, often the neurons in the brain are injured and start to die. The result is that those neurons can no longer make connections with one another.

When the brain isn't making connections, parts of the brain start to shrink. Patients with advanced Alzheimer's disease experience brain atrophy, where there is a more widespread loss of brain volume.

Research About Jigsaw Puzzles for Adults and Dementia Prevention

So, how do jigsaw puzzles connect to all of the potential risk factors and symptoms of dementia? There is an abundance of research and some common thought about the value of doing jigsaw puzzles.

Interestingly, there's one study from the University of Michigan that only a small percentage of participants discussed their concerns about dementia and preventing it with their doctor.

Instead, more were taking matters into their own hands. They were doing brain puzzles, jigsaw puzzles online, and from an actual puzzle box to help stave off the onset of dementia. Some also acknowledged taking over-the-counter supplements to help, too.

Interestingly, the World Health Organization and Global Council on Brain Health don't believe there's any connection between supplements and better brain health. Yet, they do see connections between engaging and stimulating brain activities and the prevention of cognitive decline.

There's no known connection that implies all games work the same to avoid that cognitive decline. Many seniors seek out online puzzles and games to work their brains.

Instead, the research seems to support speed-of-processing training as being more effective. Increasing the rate at which puzzles are completed is a stronger factor in helping a dementia patient.

Another study conducted inside a nursing home found that when dementia patients worked on jigsaw puzzles along with practicing activities of daily living, physical activity and a spiritual element helped to prevent the loss of cognition over a 12-month period.

Patients in the same nursing home who didn't follow that routine showed a significant cognitive decline over the same time period.

Prevention Vs. Slowing of Dementia

There were some common theories amongst the medical community for many years that the practice of doing a variety of puzzles might help to stave off dementia.

More recently, though, the belief is that doing puzzles doesn't prevent dementia. Whatever might trigger dementia in a patient is likely to still bring on some of the symptoms of dementia.

The new theory is that doing puzzles like jigsaw puzzles actually helps to slow the worsening of cognitive decline in patients suffering from dementia.

The idea that some scientists are testing has a little different twist. Working a puzzle might not prevent dementia. Doing puzzles does increase the level of cognition in a person. So, there's a higher level of cognition before a decline sets in.

Of course, much of the study that this theory involved was observational. Scientists must also consider what other factors are in play that might impact cognition. This might include things like medication or mobility, for example.

Seeking Brain Health

With such a huge increase in the number of people who suffer from dementia-related illnesses, you'd think that the conversation about the importance of brain health would be as important as the focus on things like heart health.

As people live longer, it's important to consider the importance of quality brain health in the hopes of aging with the impact of dementia and related illnesses.

So, what can a person do to maintain good brain health? Of course, you can guess that exercise, not drinking to excess, not smoking, eating well, and avoiding recreational drugs will be a part of good brain health.

You also want to practice a diet that's rich in vitamins, proteins, fiber, and minerals. It's smart to add foods with antioxidant properties.

It's also important to remember the role of sleep deprivation on the brain. Getting consistent, uninterrupted sleep is good for the brain.

If you speak another language or play a musical instrument, you work different parts of your brain. Guess what else does this, too, working on jigsaw puzzles.

Consider that memory issues are a key warning sign in dementia. Working on jigsaw puzzles works your memory. It provides an exercise in memory. It also helps improve brain functions, especially short-term memory, which is an important part of good brain health.

Don't underestimate the sheer pleasure of finding a piece that fits into a puzzle. Or the sense of accomplishment that comes from fitting the very last piece into a jigsaw puzzle.

Jigsaw puzzles do provide brain stimulation which contributes to quality brain health, which is a good way to handle the risks associated with dementia.

Practicing Mentally Challenging Activities

A study done by the Cochrane Review provided some real promise in the connection between keeping dementia at bay and doing challenging brain activities.

This group actually studied 15 different studies on the role of challenging the brain with activities and how it impacts the effects of dementia.

The studies considered if those with mild to moderate forms of dementia did about 45 minutes of mentally challenging activities twice a week, what would the impact be for the patients?

The goal of the activities, which included working on jigsaw puzzles, was to provide stimulated thinking and memory challenges.

In the end, the study found that those who participated and had quality mental stimulation during this time showed improved scores on memory and thinking tests.

The study also found that those who practiced mentally stimulating activities, like doing jigsaw puzzles, had increased feelings of well-being. The participants had a better quality of life and showed improved communication skills with those around them.

Benefits of Puzzle Doing

Whether you or someone you love has a dementia diagnosis or you are interested in working your brain, there are a host of real benefits to working on a jigsaw puzzle.

Let's take a closer look at some of the many benefits of turning yourself into a jigsaw puzzler.

Using All Your Brain

You may have heard someone identify themselves as left-brained or right-brained. A left-brained person tends to be a logical thinker and works in a linear fashion. They like numbers and organization.

A right-brained person is usually a creative person. They work with their intuition.

When you're doing a puzzle, you actually are using both the left side of your brain and the right side of your brain at the same time.

This creates a mental workout in the brain as both sides are engaged at the same time.

Improve Short Term Memory

If you're like most people, you can remember funny and fond stories of your youth, yet you can't remember what you ate for breakfast yesterday.

One of the things that doing jigsaw puzzles does for us is to work to improve our short-term memory.

As you search for that certain puzzle piece and then go back to find it, your brain is actually working on connections in the brain cells, which is a method to improve short-term memory.

Improve Visual-Spatial Reasoning

Whether you're using free jigsaw puzzles for adults or investing in vintage puzzles, they work the same way to improve your visual-spatial reasoning.

When you're doing a jigsaw puzzle, you're studying individual pieces. You're considering how they will fit into the bigger part of the whole puzzle. Which edges go together? Will this fit into that opening?

All this thinking works to improve your visual-spatial thinking in the brain.

Meditative Stress Relievers

Now some say puzzles make them crazy when they can't find that one missing piece. Yet, they continue to look and focus.

The truth is that focusing on a puzzle without other thoughts in your head is like meditation. It can actually work to reduce your stress level and help you to relax.

The sense of accomplishment that comes from working towards the completion of a puzzle can also help reduce stress.

Social Connections

Many people find the collective effort of working on a jigsaw puzzle very comforting. There's the camaraderie of sitting together at a table, working to piece the puzzle together.

You're not only having social company, but you're interacting. You might talk about the puzzle or other topics while you work. The puzzle becomes the thing that brings people together.

Quality Alone Time

At the same time, there's some value in focusing on a puzzle all by yourself. Your brain gets zeroed in on the activity. It becomes like an activity of meditation.

How Jigsaw Puzzles Help Dementia Patients

While all of the above are actually benefits for anyone working a jigsaw puzzle, how might the activity of putting together a puzzle help a dementia patient?

Let's take a closer look at how it helps those suffering from dementia.

Helps Slow the Decline of Cognitive Function

Earlier you read about the Cochrane Review. It showed that seniors who worked on a jigsaw puzzle for around 45 minutes twice a week showed improved cognition.

Participants in the study scored higher on the memory tests than those who didn't do the puzzles.

The improved memory accounted for up to nine months of symptom delay.

Brain Workout

You already know there's great value in a good brain workout for a dementia patient. Working on jigsaw puzzles works both sides of the brain, which is important for a dementia sufferer.

It helps those cells in the brain continue to make important connections that work towards that important brain health.

Works Visual Perception and Memory

Visual recognition is something often lost in those who suffer from forms of dementia. When dementia patients sit and study the puzzle pieces looking for the right piece, they are working on their visual perception and short-term memory skills.

Where is the piece that's needed? Does this shape fit with the puzzle?

Opportunities for Social Interaction

You already know that those who live alone or are not married have an increased risk of dementia. Having increased social interactions is important for dementia patients.

Maybe they sit with caregivers or family members and work on a puzzle. The opportunity to speak and interact is also an important part of working the brain and maintaining cognition.


When you work both sides of the brain at the same time, you can achieve meditation. This can be very calming.

It's not uncommon for dementia patients to have anxiety or a sense of restlessness. When working a puzzle and using both sides of the brain, the dementia sufferer can garner that focus that is often calming and provides a sense of relaxation.

Simply put, it gives the brain something to focus on, which can reduce stress.

Stimulates Long-Term Memory

Working on a jigsaw puzzle can also stimulate long-term memory. As you work on the puzzle, you need to recall colors, shapes, and sizes. You have to consider how each comes together with the other.

Sense of Accomplishment

A dementia sufferer often faces many challenges. Thinking and speaking can provide challenges.

There's an important sense of accomplishment is piecing together a puzzle. You find the missing piece. You get a section of the puzzle done.

This releases dopamine in the brain, a feel-good chemical that's surely beneficial for a dementia patient.

Helps Physical Health

You might be surprised to learn that not only does doing puzzles help the dementia sufferer's brain, it can also help their physical health.

When you're in a meditative state, your heart rate goes down, your blood pressure goes down, and even your breathing rate can be lowered.

These are positive physical health side effects of working on a jigsaw puzzle.

Choosing a Puzzle for a Person With Dementia

While there are many benefits to working a jigsaw puzzle for a dementia sufferer, choosing the right puzzle is key.

Let's take a closer look at the things you should consider when selecting a puzzle that is a good fit for a dementia sufferer.

Avoid Children's Puzzles

When choosing a puzzle, your inclination might be to choose one that's very simple, leading you to children's puzzles.

Actually, you probably want to avoid very simple children's puzzles with large pieces. These might not provide the necessary stimulation to be beneficial.

You also want to avoid puzzles that are all in the same color family as they may be too challenging, especially if they're just starting to work on puzzles.

Work to Evoke Memories

 Memories are important for dementia patients. Attempt to find cool jigsaw puzzles that will spark a memory.

There are so many puzzles on the market now that may have a connection to a previous interest or place for the dementia sufferer. You can also take photographs and have custom puzzles of people or places important to the dementia patient.

Consider Piece Count

The number of pieces in a puzzle should be carefully considered. The goal is to challenge the brain.

So, if you choose a puzzle that's too simple, the dementia patient may not get the needed brain stimulation. Likewise, one with too many pieces can make them feel overwhelmed, and they'll lose interest or get frustrated.

Consider the Size of the Pieces

Many dementia sufferers are elderly. This means they may also have other ailments like arthritis. You want to consider the size of the puzzle pieces to ensure they are manageable for the person doing the puzzle.

Consider a Puzzle Station

One thing that can help is setting up a specific place where the puzzle work is done. Consider a puzzle station or special table specifically for working on the puzzle.

This allows the puzzle-doer to come and go and not have to worry about picking up or finishing in one time period.

It can also be helpful for the dementia sufferer to place the puzzle on a white tablecloth. This helps with visual and spatial connections needed while doing the puzzle.

The puzzle pieces have more contrast against the white background of the tablecloth.

Dementia and Jigsaw Puzzles

You might have started reading this feeling a little suspicious. After all, aren't jigsaw puzzles for kids? In fact, there's a reason sitting down and working on a challenging puzzle is a time-honored tradition in many families.

The same reasons kids and families do puzzles also work to help the brain handle dementia and slow its progression in sufferers. The long list of benefits of sitting down to work on jigsaw puzzles for dementia patients makes it an activity all seniors should consider.

Even if you don't already suffer from dementia, as you age, the changes increase, and you're sure to benefit from spending time working on a puzzle.

To learn more about puzzles and the many benefits of doing jigsaw puzzles, check out some of our other many resources. 

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