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What does the game of poker have to do with Alzheimer’s disease? Can you guess?

Several weeks ago, in a special column published in the Los Angeles Times, Maria Shriver (Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement) predicted a future Alzheimer’s epidemic unless we can learn how to prevent this brain-killer that eventually leads to death.

It is a horrible disease, involving a steady loss of memory, inability to recognize family and friends, even forgetting how to eat.

Today, 5.8 million Americans already have Alzheimer’s and that number is expected to more than double in the next 30 years. Related costs are predicted to increase from $290 billion this year, to well over $1 trillion in 2050. It’s a big deal.

Recently, I attended a presentation at the Freda Mohr Multipurpose Senior Center in West Los Angeles about keeping our brains healthy as we age. Angeline Renfrow, MSG, a health promotion representative for Independence at Home (a SCAN Community Service) told us the best ways to keep our minds sharp, and avoid Alzheimer’s disease.

• The foods you eat are important. She strongly recommends eating healthy foods — vegetables, berries and red grapes, and nuts (in limited amounts). For protein, choose salmon, tuna and sardines, rather than meat. Drink plenty of water and limit alcoholic beverages.

Keep that in mind as you sit at the table for hours at a time, playing poker.

• Social activities involving interaction with others will ward off depression and stress that can contribute to memory loss. Poker to the rescue.

• Physical activity — even 30 minutes of walking, several days a week — stimulates blood flow to your body and brain, helping to keep your memory sharp. Go outdoors for a brisk walk during your breaks from the game. And there are arm, leg, and neck exercises you can do while seated at the poker table. 

• Challenge your mind. Of Angeline Renfrow’s many suggestions, most important and significant to me was her advice about mental activities that challenge the mind. She uses words that resemble what I have long advocated: “Just like (physical) exercises build strong, healthy muscles, activities that challenge your mind help it stay strong and healthy.”

That’s poker!

Years ago, Graciella, one of the older members of our Claude Pepper Seniors Poker Group, whose work career involved human biology, explained it: By exercising your brain, it will be healthier and stronger.

A healthy brain grows more neurons — nerve cells that are the basic building blocks of the brain — and more synapses to transmit information between adjacent neurons.

Indeed, I would refer you to Dr. Alan Schoonmaker’s book, Stay Young; Play Poker, in which he quotes me on my observations of the 200+ members of our Claude Pepper Seniors Poker Group — to the effect that those of us who play poker on a regular basis will not suffer from the evils of Alzheimer’s disease.

And, the game of poker is so much fun — especially when you learn to win. If you haven’t already, try it — you’ll like it.

True, our statistics are limited; a much more extensive study is warranted. I have written to the Alzheimer’s Association, suggesting it undertake such an effort.

The U.S. and other well-developed countries have poured billions of dollars into projects designed to develop drugs that will prevent or at least delay the onset of Alzheimer’s — all to no avail. 

There is hope to solve the fast-growing Alzheimer’s problem and playing poker may well be the best solution — even without drugs and costly prescription medications.  

Referring to the title of Dr. Schoonmaker’s book, here is my new maxim: “Play Poker — Avoid Alzheimer’s.” 

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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