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Mind games: The best way to keep your brain working

Aug 03, 2016 - SRIDHAR SATTIRAJU
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Even as billions of dollars are being pouring into finding a lasting cure for Alzheimer’s disease (aka generalised Dementia), there is a consensus emerging from medical experts that this is one disease that’s is age-related and hence can be tackled with adoption of better lifestyles which builds fitness of your brain and body.

Because Alzheimer’s progressively impairs memory and then the ability to focus, and then the ability to reason, there is increasing evidence to suggest brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Dementia are more about learning problems than about memory problems which means the problem is more about optimising memory and making better decisions in life — “What career path should I take?, which ice cream flavour should I have?, "Where should I go now?, Which traffic route should I take?,”... and so on.

While most of us do very well in answering these questions early in life, the real trouble and symptoms of such brain diseases aggravate as we grow older and our mental faculties decline or vanish. We then struggle to make a series of important choices which have multiple options.

Research from the past decade suggests the best way to keep our brains sharp is to keep the body fit and go for cryptic crosswords and games such as Scrabble, which will slow down production of the protein found in Alzheimer’s plaques. And new research says that playing games such as Chess also can be a better way to slow down the rate of Alzheimer’s advance or of a corresponding cognitive decline.

A recent paper published by the National Institute of Health in the US — called Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease — says apart from building physical fitness and taking a healthy diet, exposing the brain to intellectually-stimulating games such as Chess can keep the brain active and protect it by stimulating the ‘cognitive reserve’, which preserves its ability to operate effectively even when it is damaged or some of its functions disrupted. Also, among all mind sports, Chess is relatively easy to play and doesn’t require effort. According to Michael Ciamarra, a World Chess Federation-certified Chess Instructor who coaches mind sports to older adults, Chess seems like a treatment that works for people aged 65 and above. It not only helps to maintain brain fitness, it also stimulates all the six cognitive areas of the brain at the same time — delaying or in some cases, even reversing the onset of Alzheimer’s. The six cognitive areas are: short-term memory (used to remember information shortly after understanding), long-term memory (used when we recall something), language (the use and form of words), calculations, visual-spatial skills (visually-recognising objects) and critical-thinking (the ability to analyse and evaluate outcome-based decisions).

Playing Chess not only harnesses all six key cognitive areas but also increases social interactions with others and reduces stress: you have to move the pieces with huge focus, weigh pros and cons, employ logic, sort out competing options using critical thinking and use memory to recall tens to thousands of moves based on the recorded history of the game for 1,500 years. Because a single move from the opponent can trigger permutations of around 50 billion moves.

Chess remains the most stimulating mind-game that can keep the dreaded mental disease at bay — and doctors now recommend patients diagnosed with early symptoms of Alzheimer’s at least 15 minutes of play every day. Even Garry Kasparov, who is the world’s most greatest Chess Champion of all time had said that chess is the best mind-sport which can stave off all brain-related diseases.

So remember, chess can checkmate the disease of Alzheimer’s and it’s never too late to start playing.

The author can be reached at sridhar.sattiraju@gmail.com

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