A Healthy Distraction: The Benefits of Jigsaw Puzzles for Children and Adults

Time to break out the puzzles.

When you spend a lot of time at home, whether by choice or due to poor health, bad weather, or a global health crisis, you may find yourself wanting to pull out a puzzle. Jigsaw puzzles are a great way to fill time—there's a reason every vacation house stocks them—and a fun activity for people of all ages and abilities as they pore through hundreds (sometimes thousands!) of pieces looking for just the right one. My personal favorite jigsaw puzzles are the 1,000-piece nostalgic food ones from White Mountain Puzzles where you spend hours puzzling over corners of cereal boxes, Hostess treats, Pepsi cans, and Mr. Goodbar candy wrappers.

There's a good reason puzzles are so popular: Solving jigsaw puzzles is good, old-fashioned fun, they tend to be inexpensive, are (usually) easy to find, and are perfectly fun for doing alone or with others. Even better, puzzles are entirely offline fun as there is no need or use for a digital device. Not only are puzzles a fun and challenging project to spend a few hours, turns out puzzles are also pretty darn good for your brain, too.

Woman Doing Puzzle
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Solving jigsaw puzzles is a cognitively challenging activity, which is important for people of all ages. One informal study lead by researchers at Yale University found that working together to crack a puzzle could help reduce stress (and who doesn't need that?) and also resulted in improved collaboration and cooperation. For kiddos, a 2014 study found that exposure to games, such as puzzles, results in enhanced spatial skills and can help with "school readiness" for young children.

For the older crowd, there are even greater benefits to puzzling. "They may help with improving select brain skills and can play an important role in maintaining overall brain health," Dr. Julie Brody-Magid, clinical director of the Memory Disorders Assessment Clinic at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital told Harvard's health blog. There's evidence that jigsaw puzzles can help keep minds sharp as we age, according to one study. Another revealed that brain games can help older minds maintain their quick wits, speedy processing, planning skills, reaction time, decision making, and short-term memory, according to a study in the November 2016 International Psychogeriatrics.

Jigsaw puzzles aren't the only way to keep up that mental activity, of course. Things like crossword puzzles and Scrabble, chess, Sudoku, and bridge can help, as well as dancing, painting, playing an instrument, or learning a new language. However, Sudoku is hard with a crowd and it isn't easy to pack a tuba on vacation (although my nephew tries). Puzzles are easy to pack and fun for a big group. In fact, they are such a great combination of challenging and relaxing that computing genius-turned billionaire-turned philanthropist Bill Gates makes sure to bring them on vacation whenever he travels with his family. It's hard to argue with that puzzle fan's success story! So, pull out those old puzzles—or get a new one if you are lucky enough to find one.

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  1. Verdine BN, Golinkoff RM, Hirsh-Pasek K, Newcombe NS. Finding the missing piece: Blocks, puzzles, and shapes fuel school readiness. Trends Neurosci Educ. 2014;3(1):7-13. doi:10.1016/j.tine.2014.02.005

  2. Fissler P, Küster OC, Loy LS, et al. Jigsaw Puzzles As Cognitive Enrichment (PACE) - the effect of solving jigsaw puzzles on global visuospatial cognition in adults 50 years of age and older: study protocol for a randomized controlled trialTrials. 2017;18(1):415. doi:10.1186/s13063-017-2151-9

  3. Yates LA, Ziser S, Spector A, Orrell M. Cognitive leisure activities and future risk of cognitive impairment and dementia: systematic review and meta-analysisInt Psychogeriatr. 2016;28(11):1791-1806. doi:10.1017/S1041610216001137

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