Research finds chess and crosswords help lower dementia risk

Michelle Wisbey

17/07/2023 4:38:57 PM

Mentally stimulating activities like games are helpful to lower the risk for one of the leading causes of death in Australia.

Older people playing chess
Research suggests people who routinely engage in literacy and mental acuity tasks, such as chess, are 11% less likely to develop dementia.

A Monash University study of more than 10,000 older Australians has shed a light on how to best help patients lower their dementia risk.
Published in the JAMA Network Open medical journal, the research finds those who routinely engage in literacy and mental acuity tasks are 11% less likely to develop the condition.
Those tasks include attending education classes, keeping a journal, playing games such as chess and crosswords, and using computers.
Meanwhile, researchers found creative hobbies such as craft, knitting, painting and reading are less likely to reduce risk, but could still decrease it by 7%.
‘The cognitive stimulation from such activities can increase resilience against brain pathologies by increasing the number of neurons, enhancing synaptic activity, and permitting higher efficiency in using brain networks,’ the study found.
GP and coordinator of the Dementia Subgroup of RACGP Specific Interests Aged Care, Dr Stephanie Daly, told newsGP the more a patient can stimulate their brain in different ways, the more protective it will be.
‘I think that while the risk reduction for activities such as knitting and painting is lower than playing chess, it still shows that social interaction and mental stimulation is good for your brain and is better than no reduction at all,’ she said.
The study’s results proved to be the same for both males and females and remained the same even when adjusted for earlier education level and socioeconomic status.
With Australia’s ageing and growing population, it’s predicted dementia diagnoses will more than double in the next three decades.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates there were 401,300 Australians living with dementia last year.
It remains the second leading cause of death in Australia and the leading cause of death for women.
It is also the leading burden of disease for those aged over 65 and more than 1.5 million Australians are now involved in the care of someone living with dementia.  
The report’s senior author Associate Professor Joanne Ryan hopes the findings will help healthcare professionals create targeted programs for their patients should dementia prevalence continue to increase as expected.
‘While engaging in literacy and mental acuity activities may not be a magic pill to avoid dementia, if that was your goal and you had to choose, our research certainly suggests these are the activities most likely to support prolonged good cognitive health,’ she said.
Dr Daly said a timely diagnosis when symptoms are milder is likely to allow patients to make adaptations and take steps to maintain their independence.
‘The pathological process that occurs in the brain in relation to Alzheimer’s disease in particular occurs in midlife, hence why targeting lifestyle change at this point is the most important time to start,’ she said.
‘Importantly though, risk reduction is [also] of value later in life, and even after a diagnosis is made, so it’s never too early and never too late for these strategies.
‘Risk reduction should be tailored to the individual, just like motivational interviewing so that individuals choose what they can change and make sustainable change rather than feeling overwhelmed and not being able to contemplate any change.
‘Above all, I guess it is important to do a mentally challenging activity that you enjoy rather than trying to play chess when it doesn’t interest you just because it’s slightly more beneficial for reducing risk.’
Dr Daly said dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease, will increasingly be something seen by primary care practitioners, and GPs should be ready for this patient influx.
‘It is well worth delving deeper into this area, as you will be supporting and improving the quality of so many people’s lives which at the end of the day is what a GP does best,’ she said.
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