By IRENE MAHER
Times Staff Writer
TAMPA - If you're a crossword puzzle fan — and even if you aren't — you've probably heard that solving these word games may be more than a fun diversion. There's some evidence that taking on mentally challenging activities like crossword puzzles may boost brain power and help ward off dementia and Alzheimer's disease as you age.
You don't even have to be good at it to reap rewards. In fact, experts say brain-challenging activities that require you to think in different ways are even more beneficial than familiar tasks.
Research into the benefits of brain-challenging games is one reason Merl Reagle, a nationally syndicated crossword puzzle creator who lives in Tampa, wanted to work with an Alzheimer's charity.
"Brain health and crosswords always comes up in conversations about Alzheimer's," said Reagle.
But he also had a personal reason for choosing the cause. When his partner Marie Haley's mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Haley and Reagle moved to Florida from California to care for her. Before Josephine Lesiak died in 1995 at age 76, Reagle saw what the disease did to the once vibrant Lesiak and the great strain it put on her daughter.
Together, Reagle and Haley decided to find an Alzheimer's charity that needed help.
"When you see the worst you want to do something," said Haley, 67, who grew up in Tampa and went to the University of South Florida.
Reagle's crossword puzzles appear in more than 50 Sunday newspapers across the country including the St. Petersburg Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has been making puzzles since he was 6 years old and is known for his use of humor and puns.
Reagle thought using his skill at creating puzzles would work well as a fundraiser, while bringing awareness to lifestyle choices that promote brain fitness.
"It was clear to us that a contest based on skill, where people have to solve a series of puzzles, would be the perfect match to benefit Alzheimer's,'' Reagle said. "People with brains that work well are working for those whose brains don't work so well."
The couple said they approached several groups over the years but most thought that running a contest fundraiser would be too difficult and risky; getting sponsors interested also turned out to be a problem for some.
But in February they found out about the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, based in New York, a national nonprofit consortium that represents more than 1,600 member organizations dedicated to individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer's, their caregivers and families. AFA was immediately enthusiastic about Reagle's proposal, and soon he was hard at work on a series of puzzles. The National Brain Game Challenge, as the series is called, took him three months to complete.
The AFA estimates that more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and its toll is increasing enormously as the baby boom generation ages.
Getting older is the primary risk factor for Alzheimer's, though new research is showing that healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercise, maintaining a healthy weight — and challenging the brain — can stave off the condition for some people.
"More people need to know that the AFA exists and gives help nationally, particularly to caregivers," said Reagle. "I'm thrilled to be doing this with them."
Irene Maher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Join the National Brain Game Challenge
• Register now at the Alzheimer's Foundation of America website: alzfdn.org.
• Cost: $25
• At 3 p.m. Sept. 25, registered players will go to a dedicated contest website where they will download several crossword puzzles containing key words that lead to a single solution.
• Part of the contest is figuring out the e-mail address where the final solution should be sent.
• The first person to send in the correct final answer wins $5,000. Smaller prizes will be awarded based on speed and accuracy.
• Want to practice? You'll find a free sample puzzle Merl Reagle created for the National Brain Game Challenge that you can print out at our website: links.tampabay.com.