Chess Can Sharpen Mental Fitness, but How Good Is It at Staving Off Cognitive Decline?

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Chess, it seems, is having a moment, at least since millions of us found ourselves stuck inside for extended periods of time just an election cycle ago. First came The Queen’s Gambit, the entertaining (and binge-worthy) story of a mid-century American chess prodigy played by Anya Taylor-Joy that became the most popular scripted series in Netflix history. However, the game’s time in the limelight goes beyond a successful streaming series. GQ reported just last month that chess is the diversion du jour for NBA superstars, among them Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic. (Not to mention former MVP Derrick Rose, whose time at a Drake concert was made noteworthy because he was playing chess on his phone.)

Lovers of the game routinely cite a familiar list of reasons why it’s worth playing: to hone one’s decision-making abilities; to improve one’s focus and attention to detail; as a way to build emotional intelligence; as a game that can bring friends and family together. Last summer, another common reason for pursuing the game popped up again in a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association. Chess was cited as one of several “active mental activities” that may reduce one’s risk of developing dementia later in life.

Over 10 years, the study’s authors analyzed a group of more than 10,000 older Australians with a median age of 73. One of the conclusions was that frequently playing some type of game—board games, cards, or chess—“was associated with a 9.0% reduction in the risk of dementia.” This certainly isn’t the first study to examine whether some cognitive link exists between playing chess and staying mentally fit. Special attention to dementia is warranted: The authors cite data from the World Health Organization indicating that 55 million people worldwide have dementia, with 10 million new cases emerging every year. In the U.S., that number hovers around seven million.

The emphasis on a game like chess comes down to a concept known as cognitive reserve. As David Ludden, PhD, a psychology professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, notes, there is evidence that people who are mentally and socially active are able to cope better with the brain damage that goes along with developing dementia.

“Learning new things, learning musical instruments, taking classes: Those are all things that can help build up this cognitive reserve,” he says. “If you have been a lifelong chess player, it’s probably going to give you some cognitive reserve." But whether chess, specifically, can stave off cognitive decline seems about as clear as what moves a novice chess player should make in order to even have a chance against grandmaster and world chess champion Magnus Carlsen.

“In health, there are all these associational studies, but they’re not terribly convincing,” says David Canning, PhD, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “I would say the jury is still out.”

Canning has spent the last several years actively studying aging among chess players, plumbing the database of players of the U.S. Chess Federation—which, according to the USCF, includes more than 113,000 players, including 10,415 players who are 65 and older. His goal is to eventually set up a study that tracks general cognitive abilities with a person’s chess ability over time. However, as it stands currently, he says, observational studies like the one published by JAMA last summer are just that: observations that appear to promote a use-it-or-lose-it hypothesis, but nothing concrete.

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“People who play chess are higher-performing than average, and they also tend to be on good trajectories,” he says. “It’s not surprising that 10 years later, they’re still good. Whether they’re selected that way or whether it’s because they’re playing chess is hard to say.”

According to Canning, the more interesting question is why dementia risk by age is actually decreasing in the U.S. “What we’re seeing is that the age of onset of dementia is getting much later,” he says. One reason, he notes, might be that there are more educated people in the U.S. than ever before. Another reason might be that as smoking rates have declined, improvements in cardiovascular health—your ability to pump blood to your organs, including your brain—have increased.

“I don’t think the evidence is there that we should push people to undertake cognitive activities if they’re not doing it already,” Canning says. “I think if you’re going to push people into lifestyle changes, I would emphasize the physical health.”

Still, it’s not like playing chess will harm you in the long run. I admit I’ve found myself frantically trying to solve the daily puzzles served up by ever since downloading the app last year. My brother indirectly cultivated the habit: During visits at home, without fail, he brings out the chess board and promptly schools me. The only thing chess ends up hurting is my ego.

Originally Appeared on GQ