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How Playing Chess Keeps The Adult Mind Active & Alive

Still from Pixar's 'Geri's Game'Studies have shown that playing chess can be helpful in raising academic performance among young people. Those who have been exposed to chess from an early age show improvements in logical thinking and overall test scores, improved socialisation and better concentration. But can playing chess help adults in these areas? Initial evidence seems to point to yes.

A 2003 study showed a link between mental activity and dementia. Researchers found that people who do not regularly use their brains' higher functions such as reason and logic are more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. They suggested playing strategy games regularly in order to stave off the onset of dementia. As strategy games go, none are better than chess. But why does chess give its players such a mental workout?

Although chess is a relatively easy game to learn, the new player must keep several bits of information in their head at all times. Each piece type has a different function and capability. Initially, players must remember what each piece can be used for and then use them accordingly, but as they begin to understand the game, they add strategy and analysis, which only improves the mental workout.

Chess is an active game, meaning that players must remain engaged throughout the game play. What this means is that they must constantly reevaluate the play and make adjustments to their own strategies as the game progresses. Players must plan their own movements, anticipate their opponents' and adapt accordingly. With time, players are able to visualise possible moves and consequences, seeing the board several moves into the future. By constantly engaging the mind, chess gives the brains quite a workout. Logical thinking, analytical thinking and visualisation are all important higher-level thought processes that are constantly in use during a chess game, and these are just the types of processes that experts deem necessary to prevent or slow the onset of dementia.

Possibly the nicest thing about chess is that it doesn't get boring. When players sit down to a game of chess, they are faced with over ten thousand possibilities for how the game will unfold. In other words, it is highly unlikely that players will see the same game twice. Different players have different styles and approaches, which add to the variety of the game, and helps keep it fresh. This variety helps keep players coming back to the board.

The value of chess in keeping the mind working can also be seen in its use as a therapeutic tool for stroke and brain injury victims. The same attributes that make chess beneficial at keeping a brain strong can help rebuild a brain that has been damaged. As these people learn to play chess, new neural pathways are formed replacing those that had been lost or damaged. Existing pathways are strengthened. Concentration is improved and for some, chess even has a calming effect. Chess even has physiological benefit for stroke victims in that they can work to regain fine motor skills as they move their pieces around the board.

People are living longer and longer and unfortunately, the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia in later life is very real. There are many things that a person can do to help stave off these debilitating conditions, and keeping ones brain engaged and active seems to be at the top of the list. A regular workout of the brain's higher-level functions can go a long way toward keeping the mind nimble into later life, and there is no better mental workout than a good game of chess.

Above image © 1997 Pixar Films

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