Mah Jongg and The Art of Aging Well

How does mental stimulation and playing Mah Jongg help keep our brains active as we age?The interactive exercises on our website help to reinforce the information that is presented and are also a great way to bolster and maintain cognition.
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     A popular Beatles song asked, “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 a 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 at Mah Jongg, 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 many variations of the game, and different rules for each variation.     The results of a 2014 study, 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?” cited 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 watching Jeopardyare 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!