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Chess and Alzheimer's

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In an interview with the local León paper, event organizer (since 1997) Marcelino Sión relates a conversation with Leontxo Garcia about chess as a means of combating Alzheimer's Disease. (Garcia has long promoted the benefits of chess in this area.) There are various studies about the effects of various cognitive pastimes -- crossword puzzles, sudoku, etc -- delaying the onset of Alzheimer's and other types of aphasia and deterioration of mental faculties. Sión relates Leontxo's question and I'll pass it on to you: Have you ever known of a strong chessplayer with Alzheimer's?

I haven't, and I would extend that not only to strong players but also to weak-but-dedicated amateurs who continued playing regularly deeply into their senior years. Surely that's a better test of the theory anyway. On the other hand, Miguel Najdorf, who was very strong well into his 70s, and quite clear-headed if rather cantankerous, was told by his doctors to stop playing speed chess because it was rough on his weak heart. Another plus for classical chess!

David Shenk's book "The Immortal Game" discussed this topic and he was interviewed about it on ABC News a few years ago. Video here, ChessBase article on it here. You can get more googling.


You cannot rule out the possibility that those who start developing dementia as they get older will stop playing chess. So the aged population of amateur chess players without dementia may be self-selected to be resistant. I think this is known as the "healthy worker effect".

Perhaps the Gandmaster anecdote is better. This obviously suffers from a smaller sample size and none of them will have "normal" brains, but they are selected at an early age when pre-dementia changes should not have happened.

I will not say too much, as I have not read any of the literature about this and so may be barking up the wrong tree.


no dan, i think you've got the right tree. ;)

maybe anecdotal observations could lead to some legitimate research, but without some long term case study data (i don't think your going to get a double blind trial out of this one), you really can't say anything about this.

no offense, mig.

Really not a big plus for the classical chess, this Najdorf story.

The aged players often tell in interviews that it is easier for them to play the rapid chess tournaments - not being forced to keep concentration for the five straight hours or so.

Many studies HAVE been done, if mostly in retrograde style. That is, taking a big sample of people with dementia and surveying their activities before they got it and comparing them to people without dementia. Also comparing the age at onset between the groups. As with most studies, correlation is easy and causation is hard, but the high correlation is impressive. E.g. between having intellectual pastimes and not developing dementia, or having a later onset. Or, since it's done in reverse, showing that those with dementia have a far lower index of intellectual pastimes than those without.


@Mikail: I meant only about the heart problems. Yes, I remember being surprised when Lev Psakhis told me he was a fan of faster FIDE time controls and rapid tiebreaks. I imagined an older traditional player would stand with longer controls, but he pointed out it's easier for veterans to maintain their powers in shorter games without a fifth hour of play. I think I have a video of that interview around here somewhere.

Pretty much more of the same info, but this article includes bilinguilism as another means of "stretching" the brain to keep it active. http://www.marshfieldclinic.org/patients/?page=cattails_2008-alzheimers-prevention

Thanks, Mig, for mentioning The Immortal Game (reviews below). You probably don't recall, but we met at the Kasparov-Deep Junior match in '03, and you do have a tiny cameo in the book.

That Good Morning America clip has caused me a lot of heartache -- I've been savaged by chessplayers who've correctly noted that I moved Black before White in a demonstration. Needless to say, I was a little distracted at the time...

I don't really talk about Alzheimer's in my chess book. They played up that connection because my previous book, The Forgetting, is an ambitious biography of Alzheimer's. I'm not aware of any studies proving that chess protects against Alzheimer's. What we do know, with some confidence, is that people who are highly-educated or otherwise intellectual do tend to get Alzheimer's later and less often than people who aren't. They're probably not actually avoiding the disease any more than others, but the quality of synaptic connections helps their brain better withstand the brutal onslaught of plaques and tangles.

My strong hunch is that chess playing and study can help, but only as a small piece in a vigorous overall intellectual life. Exercise your mind in every realm: emotionally, socially, linguistically, mathematically, politically, and on the chessboard

And it's just as important to add this: We also know that there is a very strong connection between heart health and brain health. So if you're going to spend your life slouched over a chess board eating crap and avoiding exercise, you're definitely not helping yourself vis a vis Alzheimer's or other diseases related to age.

- David Shenk


1. Chess, Mathematics, puzzles, handheld computer games have all been held to improve memory, delay the onset of age-related memory impairment (ARMI)- not so sure about Alzheimer's.
2. It's been speculated that regular mental exercises help to strengthen neuronal connections and perhaps improve blood flow in the brain. In turn, it is suggested that this protects the brain against the development of neurofibrillary tangles and senile plaques that occur in Alzheimer's.
3. Of course everyone will develop dementia eventually if they live long enough.

HardyBerger writes: "Of course everyone will develop dementia eventually if they live long enough."

My understanding is quite the opposite. The odds do become very fierce as one gets older. But it seems pretty clear that a hardy minority will never develop Alzheimer's or any other dementia no matter how long they live.

That is true .

1. There HAVE been peer-reviewed studies that prove chess (and other intellectual activities) do protect against many forms of dementia, including Alzheimers. In one such study that got a lot of media play 4 or 5 years ago, the lead researcher was at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Any of you should be able to locate it easily.

I was so impressed with it that I began pursuing the idea of building a business around the concept. As has happened before in my life, though, when push came to shove I ended up preferring the known (keeping my day-job) to the unknown journey of risking all on an entrepreneurial venture - however promising it sounded to all I discussed it with (none of whom offered to risk THEIR money to bring it to fruition, of course).

One rub is that that study - like all the other studies, I believe - did not focus on chess specifically, but lumped it together with a range of other mental activities, including "card games." (I think crossword puzzles were included, too.) The reason it made such a strong impression on me was that the lead researcher gave a pithy quote near the top of one of the most widely circulated newspaper stories, saying something like, "I can see the day when one's neurologist will prescribe a pill and a game of chess for an older person at risk of memory loss." So, although the study did not zero in on chess, the lead doctor did in a widely reported quote.

2. Just a week or two ago, a New York Times article profiled seniors in their 90s who play bridge regularly at a Florida condo complex. The article brought in research findings about the relationships between very advanced age, declining intellectual abilities, dementia, and mental activities like bridge. Although I forget whether that group of bridge-players was the focus of any specific medical research, that article should be of interest in this context.

That story also mentions research that points to an ethnic connection - in terms of protection against dementia, not propensity to develop it. I am reluctant to say more, because I happen to belong to that particular ethnic group, and don't want to be seen as promoting any form of supremacy. (Inter alia, the same ethnic group was reported in separate research as possibly having some gene combination associated with numerous clusters of very long-lived individuals, such as families of 5 or 6 sisters and brothers who each lived into their nineties.)

3. Either that article or another recent one stated a finding that the percentage of people who develop dementia never stops climbing as they get older. This was a recent research finding, which contradicted experts' previous consensus that dementia risk levels off once one reaches a certain age.

On the other hand, it certainly does NOT prove HardyBerger's assertion that "everyone will develop demetia eventually if they live long enough."

One would think that if you are looking for someone to play a game of chess, you might try an assisted living/nursing facility. It seems that most veterans I know learned the game while in the service - especially those who had some down time. Some of those veterans and others their age would enjoy both the companionship, as well as the chance to engage in a sporting activity like chess.

This would be a GREAT project for a scholastic club: pair each student with a senior for weekly or monthly games. The seniors would adore any children willing to sit with them for an hour or two, and the children might learn a thing or two as well...

Off topic Question :
A friend of mine is the producer of a tv show here in Argentina and needs to start the show with a game of chess (between the host and the guest).
The thing is that she needs a to start with a check , then the whole show continues and then happens the check mate in the last escene.
Any suggestions ? I was thinking in one of those miniatures that chessbase used when they weren´t able to broadcast the games of the Topalov vs Kamsky match (they were all like fool mates).
Maybe a more famous game would be more fitin.
Thx in advance for any help and pardon the intrusion.

Morphy vs. the Duke is very visually appealing for TV. There is a check on move 9 or 10, as I recall, a few moves prior to the final mating sequence.

I remember watching Fischer demonstrate that game on Dick Cavett back in '71. I was sitting in a hotel bar in Portland, Oregon, between rounds of the U.S. Junior Open, I think. (Hmm, I must have been way underage...)

When Fischer showed the mating move, Rd8# I think, Cavett voiced surprise: "He can go that far in one move?"


If you don't need to start from the starting position (may I redundate?) the point is having a check and a long sequence before mate, Averbakh-Kotov from Zurich 53 would do the job in style. If you need a quick check and a long game, any Bogoindian win by black may serve.

I just saw the Morphy vs the Duke, i think is perfect , because the check is both forcing and lethal.
Thx Alez for some incredible games ! But they might be a little too complex for the players to replay them without making mistakes.
Another thing in favor for the Morphy game is that the area of interest has few pieces and is very easy to read.
Thx again both of you.

Jon Jacobs wrote:
1. There HAVE been peer-reviewed studies that prove chess (and other intellectual activities) do protect against many forms of dementia....

Hmmm, I am somewhat confident that these were merely correlational "studies" that measured factors or variables; not true scientific experiments that manipulated some variables and measured others.

My understanding is that:
Correlational studies are unable to "prove" causation. Even an analysis of covariance can only disprove causation in one direction (not prove causation in either direction).
To prove causation you need an experiment that uses the scientific method.

Just to clarify my earlier point. Dementia is a degenerative disease of the brain and so if you live long enough (say up to 150 years) you'd lose enough neuronal function to impair your cognitive faculties- dementia. I'm sure I read that in a textbook somewhere. I can supply references too.

Dementia is NOT a degenerative disease of the brain.


Dementia - Severe impairment or loss of intellectual capacity and personality integration, due to the loss of or damage to neurons in the brain.

In this case, India would have a very low incidence of Alzheimer's since most Indians are either bi-lingual or tri-lingual all their lives. Actually AD is quite common in India. Or maybe, it only works for those who actively learn a new language late in life.

Perhaps you should look at standard texts on psychogeriatrics like Jacoby& Oppenheimer (UK) or Kaplan& Sadock.

My friend once shared a hospital wing with an ailing GM who was in a very bad mental state (couldn't recognize even his family, could no longer communicate verbally, forgot everything etc.) But they once sat down to play chess and although he clearly did not know what he was doing, demolished my friend easily. Admittedly, my friend is a patzer and I don't know if it was Alzheimer's -- maybe somebody could verify, I think it was GM Gedeon Barcza.

Well, I don't have scientific studies to prove it, but from what we know about how the brain reacts to other kinds of damage, I'd bet it uses every trick in the book to keep the most heavily used functions keep working as long as possible.

My father is a gerontologist and a world-renown expert on Alzheimer's. He looked at this blog and wrote the following:

"thanks ... that was an interesting series of responses ... my take on the research literature is that "brain health" does protect one against AD for a time--it postpones the visible onset--but once AD becomes apparent, the progression of cognitive decline is much steeper and faster"

You're right, my wording was too strong, if you're going to get technical about it. Obviously all these are epidemiological studies; to "prove causation," you'd have to conduct an experiment in which one group of subjects were given some toxin or operation known to INDUCE dementia 100% of the time, and then see if chess or some other variable prevented it.

Any volunteers?

RS, that's interesting (not to mention disturbing). I'd never heard that before, about the decline progressing faster once it does arrive. Guess it's credible, in view of the source you're citing.

That's the basic supposition behind the relatively new concept of "brain reserve" in cognition and AD research. (I spent a few years spending a lot of time on cognition, brain development, and decision-making theory working on Garry's book, though little of the science made it in since it wasn't that sort of book.) Not chess specific of course, but the basic theory is that people with good educations and active intellectual lives delay the onset even though when they examine the brain tissue after death, the typical AD damage is there.

That is, the more developed and active brain is compensating for the physical damage somehow. (Chessplayers, always looking for compensation.) Sort of like the internet using a different network when one goes down. But when its ability to compensate comes to an end, all that physical damage manifests with a vengeance and the fall is steep, much steeper than regular onset.

That's still a pretty good deal. Especially since you might delay onset until you die and if you do that, you win.

There are alternative and complementary theories, including "brain reserve," which says the brain itself is different, e.g. larger, and delays onset by having more material to break down.

This is the best synopsis I could find in 30 seconds or less. I have a few of the studies they reference courtesy of a family member with a research hospital login, but they may be online elsewhere.


These arguments over the meaning of "dementia" are interesting and IMHO afflicted with aging bias.

When I taught classes in psychology...the term dementia was used to refer to any organic mental disorder that involves a loss of intellectual functions.

Example: Glossary in "Psychology" by D. Bernstein, E. Roy, T. Srull, C. Wickens 1988 Houghton Mifflin Co.

"An organic mental disorder that involves a loss of intellectual functions. It may occur alone or in combination with delirium. The most common symptoms invovle loss of memory-related functions."

Dementias are shown by the symptoms -- the intellectual function deficits. Memory loss is a form of dementia. Mild retardation (i.e. inability to perform rudimentary arithmetic) can be a dementia.

Dementia is not the Alzheimer's disease per se -- i.e. there must be degradation of function. And whatever causes that degradation of function is the source of the dementia.

You can have a dementia due to vitamin deficiency, for example.

And that is where the aging bias comes in -- if a 25 yr old has a mental function loss due to a vitamin deficiency, doctors will try everything to cure it. If a 75-yr old has the same loss...from the same source...it is often chalked up to aging. That is an agism bias theme that I used to communicate in my classes.

Dementias are not an old age issue. Anyone can have them and many people of all ages do have them.

Have I ever known of a strong chessplayer with Alzheimer's? Yes. Chapter I of "The Bobby Fischer I Knew and Other Stories" by Arnold Denker and Larry Parr is about Albert Pinkus, "young American Tal of the 1920s, powerful kingpin of both the Manhattan and Marshall chess clubs, eventual owner of the seventh-best won-lost record in U.S. Championship history." Page 31: "On February 4, 1984, Al Pinkus died from Alzheimer's Disease . . . ."

Never thought that chess was good for some diseases. But its good to know the chess is good for your memory and make a strength skill, also is good for health, I just started in this world of chess and I'm doing a lover of the game.

Manu: how about the famous Edward Lasker - George Thomas game? (8 consecutive checks, the last one being mate).

I already sent her the Morphy game with some anotations and links , she thanked me and said that she would call me to discuss it before the recording (scheduled last monday).
She never called again of course , she is a tv executive producer and does that sort of things very often.
Eventually she will remember that i exist and call to tell me how the story ended.

Until then ,thx for reminding me of that spectacular game.
BTW , are you a relative of the great writter in some way?

No, not that I'm aware of.

This is so true. When we use our minds to think deeply we build ridges in our brains and these ridges cause our minds to be sharper. When I play chess I kind of loose the world around me and get sucked into the game with such mental focus and deep thought so it is possible that chess is good for the prevention of Alzheimer's Disease.

If 60 is a common age for the onset of Alzheimers, does that mean that if you get to say 75 without any symptoms of Alzheimers, the odds are in your favour that you won't get it?

Alzheimer's disease is a fatal brain problem and is a common form of dementia games like chess may help Alzeimer to some extend but i think it cant be a full treatment option coz it is said that the main cause and the treatment is still not understood

I donnot know much about it since I am not a doctor but I do incessantly know which chess has alot of benefits when it heavily comes to exercising the mind.

Well Elvis, I am a doctor, and I wear a white coat to prove it. I carry around lots of saws with me. Now young man, exercising your mind is certainly beneficial. Just don't exercise your hand too much okay? Theres a good lad.

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