Mentally challenging activities keep us healthy

Mentally challenging activities keep us healthy

April 17, 2018 3:07 AM
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“Start now to guard against dementia.” That’s the headline of the California Journal feature in the March 30 issue of the Los Angeles Times newspaper. Journalist Robin Abcarian quotes Maria Shriver, a former first lady of California, who founded the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement. (Shriver was married to ex-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

Alzheimer’s disease is the most awful form of dementia, causing serious harm and shortening the lives of millions of people throughout our country – horrible in every respect. Alzheimer’s is a chronic neurodegenerative disease that usually starts slowly and worsens over time. It is the cause of 60% to 70% of dementia cases.

Despite billions of dollars spent on research over the last three decades, there is little that can be done to prevent or treat it. There is no known cure.

What especially caught my attention was Shriver’s statement: “We have all become so obsessed with our bodies that we have forgotten how to take care of our brains.”

She said this while moderating a panel of experts specializing in various related fields. But then, while addressing brain health – “what your brain needs to survive and thrive” – she focuses on physical exercise, diet and meditation. In addition to strengthening your muscles and joints, exercise increases blood flow into the brain, which brings oxygen with it to prevent “brain fog.” As for diet, according to neuroscientist Lisa Mosconi, “if you eat right for your brain, you are eating right for your body.”

There are preferred food choices that might help. But, throughout the lengthy column, not a word is said about exercising the brain to help it stay strong and healthy. That’s where the game of poker enters the picture.

More and more, experts in science and medicine are recognizing that mentally challenging activities can keep our brains “in good health.” That’s not to say playing poker is the only way to accomplish this goal, but it may well be the best.

Eminent poker psychologist Alan Schoonmaker quoted me in his recently published book, “Play Poker; Stay Young,” about my observation of some 200 members of our Claude Pepper seniors poker group over many years, finding (to my knowledge) not a single one has developed Alzheimer’s. (More research is warranted.)

There is no question playing poker requires us to constantly analyze situations and think seriously while making one decision after the other – in fast response, as each hand is played. From start to finish, a typical hand lasts only about two minutes, often speeded up by the dealer to the best of her ability.

This adds to the mental challenge! During those two minutes, you have to be actively involved mentally to make the ongoing, never-ending quick decisions – great mental exercise. Such mental exercise is extremely important in making your brain “stay on its toes!” Another factor: Most people enjoy playing poker for hours at a time, in contrast to doing puzzles. That spells more time devoted to the mental challenges that lead to better brain health.

Being socially involved, as I have previously explained, is innate to playing poker – at least when you play in a casino or home game where you interact with living people. That provides yet more intellectual exercise.

As for being physically active, there are exercises you can do while seated at the table without interfering with the other players. These include isometrics. And, taking a brisk walk outdoors as a break from the table, while breathing deeply, can be good physical exercise as well as clearing your brain to avoid going on tilt after a bad beat.

Playing poker may very well be the best way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.