Confessions of a Crossword Puzzle Addict

by Chris Balicki

(Reprinted with permission from Good Times magazine, January 2006.)

Kathleen Hamilton is the author of six O Canada crossword books and the popular North of 49 crosswords, which appear weekly in major city newspapers across Canada. All her puzzles are chock full of Canadian spellings, events, places and personalities.

A lifelong lover of books, language and words, she dreams up crosswords during the day (and quite likely dreams about them at night) — ‘regular' crossword puzzles, that is, not the cryptic type. A former university lecturer, she prefers regular crosswords because they are essentially about language and words. Cryptic crosswords, on the other hand, primarily involve solving puzzles.

Crossword puzzles – whether cryptic or the regular variety – are immensely popular. They are a regular feature of many publications. The magazine sections in stores are stacked with crossword and other word game books. And then there are the hundreds of thousands of Canadians whose day is not complete without doing the crossword in the local newspaper.

Why are crosswords so appealing? Here are the clues – and the answers – to that question.

Crosswords are educational and fun

"It keeps my vocabulary fresh, broadens my knowledge, and I'm never at a loss for words," says Kathleen Hamilton in explaining her attraction to solving and creating crosswords.

As a "regular" crossword junkie myself, I know the puzzles go beyond words and are also educational. For example, all crossword lovers know that Jackie O's hubby is "Ari" and that "Asti" is an Italian city renowned for its wine. But in doing Hamilton's North of 49, I have also learned that the most easterly point in North America is Cape Spear, Nfld., that the Canadian town with the record coldest temperature is Snag, Yukon, and that there's a place in Saskatchewan called Fairy Glen (it's southeast of Prince Albert). I have never been to any of these places but I now know a bit about them.

I have been doing these word puzzles for over 30 years, but I still get stumped – and not just once in a while. I confessed to Kathleen Hamilton that I sometimes "cheat" – peeking at the solution when I can't figure out a word. The point of doing crosswords is to learn, she emphasizes, "and the way to learn is to look at the answers." To my delight, she told me she believes that there's no such thing as cheating when doing crosswords.

Some crossword connoisseurs would disagree, and purists might even tell you that outside references – dictionary, atlas, and most certainly the Internet – are verboten. But just as the world is big enough for cryptic and regular crossword lovers, there is space for crossword sticklers and the not-so-serious solvers. And there's something to be said about enjoying the whole process, making it educational, relaxing and fun.

Crosswords are inexpensive and portable

Today, you can find a crossword in most magazines and newspapers, which says a lot about their popularity. And if you look on the Internet (try Googling "crossword" or "cryptic puzzle"), there's no shortage of sites where you can download cryptic or regular puzzles, as well as suggestions on how to become more skilled at solving them.

One of the appealing aspects of doing a crossword is that it's an activity to you can pursue on your own anywhere and anytime – you aren't dependent on other people showing up. Kathy Brown of Winnipeg, a recently retired schoolteacher, first became intrigued with crossword puzzles in the summer of '73. She had just graduated from the University of Manitoba and she and three friends were taking a ‘last hurrah' road trip to British Columbia before entering the work world. One friend passed the time doing crossword puzzles, and ever since then, crossword puzzles have become a regular part of Brown's day.

It is easy to ‘pack up' a crossword puzzle book and get back to it later. I usually take one with me to a restaurant when I'm meeting a certain friend who is always late, or when I have a medical appointment.

Crosswords are challenging

Crosswords can be as challenging as you want them to be. Whether you've just started doing crosswords, have been doing them for decades, or fall somewhere in between, you can find a crossword book that fits your skills. If you're a beginner, most magazine stands have multi-level puzzle books containing "easy," "medium" and "hard" puzzles.

And if you're having difficulty, there's no rule that says you have to finish a puzzle within a certain time period. Sometimes I'm amazed at how quickly the clues and answers fall into place when I've come back to a puzzle after a few hours, or the next day.

Puzzles can be shared, or not

Barbara St. James of Winnipeg, a cryptic puzzle fan, admits she tends to be "territorial" about her crosswords – she likes to do them on her own. While she appreciates that other people might be intrigued, she prefers they not look over her shoulder while she's trying to solve a puzzle. This solitary aspect of crossword puzzles appeals to me, too. Saturday mornings are typically "my time" to sit down at the kitchen table, coffee cup in hand, and tackle the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. When a clue relates to nature or some other issue that my husband Jim knows more about than I do, I'll read it out to him, but it's still my crossword puzzle.

But some people see completing a crossword as a fun group activity, like Scrabble, except that you don't make up your own words. Or it can turn into a family activity. Retired teacher Kathy Brown reports that crossword puzzles were an effective educational tool in the classroom.

Barb Reid integrates crosswords into the group she facilitates at West Vancouver Seniors' Activity Centre. She started doing crossword puzzles herself about 15 years ago, after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Barb wanted to do activities that were mentally stimulating and would keep her brain active. For her seniors' group, she saves crossword puzzles from a local newspaper and recreates the puzzle on a flip chart, using large letters, and black construction paper for blank spaces. She calls out the clues and members take turns responding.

The group has 12 to 14 seniors from 75 to 85 years of age who are mentally alert but are experiencing physical difficulties and, as a result, some social isolation. Some members had done crosswords before joining the group; others had not. While some may be more adept at solving crosswords, this is not an issue in the group: "People hold back, they know the rules and are respectful of them and the group." And one woman, who did crosswords all her life but now is blind, is "absolutely thrilled" to be able to participate in puzzle solving again.

Like other "mental aerobics" activities she uses, Reid has found that doing crosswords together helps establish meaningful connections among the seniors in her group. The group completes the puzzle, but also has plenty of opportunity to chat and interact. The end result is one that extends well beyond simply finding the correct answers.

Crosswords are a great mental workout

Just like your body, your mind needs exercise. In fact, a recent study found that solving crossword puzzles may minimize age-related memory loss, and help ward off Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. Over a 21-year period, researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y., (led by neurologist Dr. Joe Verghese), studied the influence of leisure activities – including doing crossword puzzles – on 469 people aged 75 to 85.

None of the participants had severe visual or hearing impairments, or other serious illnesses (including dementia) at the start of the study. The study found that doing crosswords cut the risk of developing dementia by 38 per cent. Participants who did crossword puzzles four days a week had only half the risk of dementia, compared with those who did puzzle-solving once a week. (Other findings of the study: those who played board games had a 74 per cent lower risk of developing dementia, and those who played a musical instrument had a 69 per cent lower risk.)

Having done a crossword puzzle a day, starting in the summer of 1973, Kathy Brown figures she's probably worked her way through 11,600 crossword puzzles, give or take a few hundred. It's a great mental workout for her. But the rest of the crossword aficionados we spoke to have numbers that are well up there too. Perhaps Kathleen Hamilton is right – maybe crosswords are addictive. I know if I have the choice between chocolate and a good crossword puzzle, I'll go for the puzzle every time, especially now that I know I don't have to feel guilty about cheating!

The Bronx study, which examined the benefits of challenging intellectual activity among older participants, bolstered a growing body of evidence which shows that exercising the mind offers powerful protection against memory loss and brain decline. Doing crosswords was found to be an effective mental workout.

Research has also suggested that we benefit most from engaging in a rich range of challenging learning experiences, and that such activities should be enjoyable and fun, because stress and negative emotions can counter any benefits gained.

Doing a crossword puzzle – whether cryptic or regular – is one of the ways we can give our mind a stimulating – and fun – workout.