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Meditations, Digressions, From A Crossword Addict

Though crossword advocates sometimes credit the puzzles with staving off dementia, former NPR arts and culture correspondent — and longtime puzzler — Dean Olsher says it's more honest to think of them as a habit — like smoking.

"On the one hand ... we think that [crossword puzzles] are helpful when it comes to mental health," Olsher tells Melissa Block. "But then the flip side of that is that may be just the opposite; maybe crosswords are not only not going to keep us from getting Alzheimer's ... but may in fact be its own form of mental illness."

Olsher is a visiting professor at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and the author of From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords.

In researching the book, Olsher interviewed one of the researchers who first established the correlation between crossword puzzles and long-term mental acuity and learned that the two were only "marginally related."

"[The researcher] never said that there was a cause-and-effect relationship. He said there was a correlation. Maybe it just so happens that people who are mentally fit have a tendency to want to do crosswords in the first place," explains Olsher.

The possible long-term mental benefits of puzzling aside, Olsher says that crosswords have an addictive, immersive quality that keeps people coming back for more. He likens settling into a puzzle to attending the symphony orchestra or the cinema.

"We like to be sucked into something that's bigger than ourselves and makes us feel as if we've entered into this other world," he explains.

Part of the appeal of the puzzles is the familiarity they breed. As Olsher points out, devoted crossword fans often find the same familiar language and references in their favorite puzzle. But, he says, "If you step out of your own dialect, and try a puzzle made by some other syndicator, edited by someone else, don't you find that it's alien territory?"

This is one of the reasons that Olsher dismisses the idea that crossword puzzles can stave off Alzheimer's. "[Crosswords are] kind of the same activity over and over again. But the Alzheimer's research shows that really what matters is novelty. ... Constantly exposing yourself to something new. That is much more likely, I think, to keep you sharp in the long run."

As for his own experiences, Olsher says he can't remember a time before he did crossword puzzles. His earliest memories of puzzling are with his mother — and he suspects that other aficionados have similar family ties to the puzzles: "This is sort of an oral tradition in America. People pass down puzzles through the generations and have connections to their own mother or grandmother doing the puzzle and finding that connection to someone else in the family first."

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