Mah Jongg and the Art of Aging Well 

This month we are focusing on how mental stimulation and playing Mah Jongg can help keep our brains active as we age. The interactive exercises on our help to reinforce the information that is presented and are also a great way to bolster and maintain cognition. 
A popular Beatles song asked the question, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” The song surmised that when people age they may no longer lead meaningful lives or make contributions to society. However, recent studies have shown that as we age, it is as important as ever to keep our minds active, in addition to our bodies.

According to Kaiser Health News, scientists have endorsed three strategies for preventing dementia and cognitive decline associated with normal aging- being physically active, engaging in cognitive training, and controlling high blood pressure. This is the first time experts convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have deemed scientific evidence strong enough to suggest that preventing dementia and age-related cognitive decline might be possible. According to this report, cognitive training and physical activity appear to have the potential to delay age-related cognitive decline. Dr. Kenneth Langa, a panel member and professor of internal medicine, gerontology, and health management and policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health stated, “Probably the best cognitive training you can get is a good education and ongoing mental stimulation. There’s growing evidence that the ways in which your brain is challenged all through your life matter.”

Other professionals also tout the benefits of cognitive stimulation as we age. According to Ezriel Kornel, MD, of Brain and Spine Surgeons of New York in Westchester County, “It’s not enough, though, to just pick up a game and play it for a few minutes. You have to actually improve at it — and to improve you have to be learning. Anytime the brain is in learning mode, there are new synapses forming between the neurons. So you’re creating thousands of connections that can then be applied to other tasks as well.”

While previous research has shown an association between late-life cognitive activity and better mental acuity, a study conducted by Konstantinos Arfanakis, PhD, and colleagues from Rush University Medical Center and Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago studied what effect late-life cognitive activity might have on the brain’s white matter, which is composed of nerve fibers, or axons, that transmit information throughout the brain. The study included elderly participants who were without cognitive impairment. Participants underwent brain MRI within one year of clinical evaluation. “Several areas throughout the brain, including regions quite important to cognition, showed higher microstructural integrity with more frequent cognitive activity in late life,” said Dr. Arfanakis. “Keeping the brain occupied late in life has positive outcomes.” The study found that elderly patients who engage in frequent cognitive activity have brain properties similar to those of younger individuals.

A recent article from Mahjong King (a key manufacturer of Automatic Mah Jongg tables) listed five main benefits of playing Mah Jongg. According to the author, Mah Jongg

  • Can treat or slow the effects of dementia. In order to be successful, players need to stay mentally sharp throughout the duration of the game, trying to interpret clues from other players while constructing a winning hand.
  • Can help improve a person’s memory skills and sharpen the mind. It helps people to make faster decisions and better observations, and also forces players to think on different spectrums.
  • Makes an excellent social activity and prevents isolation for people of all ages.
  • Teaches patience, having to sit waiting for your turn, and waiting on your tile.
  • Is versatile. There are six variations of the game, and you can use different rules for each variation.

The results of a 2014 study, which was cited in the March 2015 AARP Bulletin, found that playing card and board games can help older people retain their mental sharpness.

Another paper, “Can Brain Stimulating Games Help Slow Down Aging?” discussed that there is a definite link between sustained mental activity and preventing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Mental stimulation, or exerting our brains in various intellectual ways, may improve our memory performance, protect our brains from future decline, and could even lead to new brain cell growth. Just as work-out can develop your muscles, mental exercise can strengthen your brain. The author believes that game playing could be very important for everyone, and especially the elderly; doing crossword puzzles, solving brainteasers, playing mah jong, and/or even watching Jeopardy, are doing mental aerobic exercises. Just like picking a fitness program to suit your physical condition, the author feels you need to select the right level of mental challenge so you will not lose interest or get frustrated. The purpose is to train within the limit of not straining our brains; and have fun at the same time.

As if we needed more proof that Mah Jongg involves a high degree of mental stimulation, Mah Jongg has recently become the sixth officially recognized mind sport of the International Mind Sports Association (IMSA), joining chess, bridge, draughts, xiangqi (Chinese chess) and go, a board game. This occurred at the IMSA’s executive board meeting held April 5, 2017 in Denmark, according to the official website of the IMSA.

So let’s all continue to play Mah Jongg, exercise our brains, and help keep our minds young. Hopefully we’ll win a few games too!

                              The Epitome of Aging Well

We all learned to play Mah Jongg at different ages and stages of our lives. Some of us learned to play Mah Jongg as children, perhaps by watching our mothers play. Others were young adults, and many of us learned as middle-aged adults. But it’s hard to beat Jo Buck, who learned to play about a year ago, at the age of 90!

I spoke with Jo recently about learning to play Mah Jongg at an age when most people have long given up trying to learn something new. She lives in Illinois and teaches bridge at a senior center and at a retirement home. Jo said she is “absolutely positively convinced that learning new things is the answer for seniors, especially to ward off dementia.”

Feeling that Mah Jongg came into her life at just the right time, Jo asserted that if you have played games such as pinochle, poker, or bridge for years, and you keep playing those games, there is no challenge. According to Jo, “The trick as we age is to learn new things and challenge our mind, to keep our mind sharp.” Jo’s doctor agrees with her that it is important to keep the mind working.

Jo was invited to learn to take Mah Jongg lessons with some friends a little more than a year ago, but she was initially too busy to learn. A short time later she started to “sit in on” and watch games. After she learned a little about Mah Jongg, she became a member of MahJonggMentor. She loves our website and looks forward to new videos about the 2017 card. Jo claims that every time she watches MahJonggMentor she takes anyway some new information. The most valuable thing she says she has learned is having an alternate hand in mind in case the first one  falls through – it’s even better if you can have a third idea in mind.  “This takes skill and I’m developing it each time I play”, Jo added.

According to Jo, “The game of Mah Jongg is fantastic and I am loving it and I seem to be getting better at it each time I get to play it; it is addictive you know! I think the name of the game is Jokers. (HaHa!).”  She added, “I find that this game stimulates and summons to action the use of your abilities.”  Jo plays Mah Jongg three times per week, and although she doesn’t feel that she could play in a tournament, “I can hold my own with intermediate players.”

This is Jo Buck celebrating her 91st birthday recently. Jo says that she also smiles like this when she gets a Mah Jongg!
Jo stressed that when she teaches bridge, she reviews the previous week’s lesson before moving on to something new, as it is important for recall and memory. She introduces one new concept a week. Jo is also an advocate for socializing and “keeping up with the times”, by using a computer and a recent gift of an iPad. She also has a Facebook account, and hopes to join some Mah Jongg Facebook groups. At this point in her life, according to Jo, “Now is the perfect time to plunge in and take that challenge and learn something new.”

If you think that Jo focuses on keeping her mind active but not her body, you would be wrong. In addition to teaching bridge and playing Mah Jongg, Jo also teaches water aerobics and floor exercises! She is an inspiration to us all, regardless of age!   -Arlene Marron